Sunday, 15 April 2012

The implications of religious morality

In continuing the discussion of morality, let's have a look at the claim made by many that morality has an objective existence emanating from God or gods.

As this is leading up to a discussion of the morality of Sam Harris, I think it's relevant to post a link to a video of a debate in which Harris and William Lane Craig debate the proposition that there can be no objective basis for morality without God. Many of the arguments I will touch on come up. Surprisingly, I think on balance I agree with Craig, however he makes at least one major logical blunder which I hope to address in a later post. For those of you without the time to watch the video, there is a transcript here.

The religious view of morality, held by the majority throughout history and today, is that morality was handed down from God(s), and as such it can be viewed as a type of moral realism. Good is simply that which is approved of or mandated by God. Evil is that which is prohibited. Disagreements among believers about what is moral arise only from uncertainty about the will of God.

In this view, for example, one must acknowledge that religious terrorists are motivated by morality, however mistaken they may be in their interpretation of God's will.

After the jump, some questions raised by using religion as a basis for morality.

Can a moral God appear to be immoral?

If morality is simply the will of God, then it must be incoherent to say that any act of God is immoral.

When millions died in Noah's flood, God acted morally. When he ordered Israelites to murder women and children, the Israelites were righteous. When atheists like me are condemned to spent eternity in torment for the crime of disbelief, our punishment will be just.

Many people have a problem with the divine origin of morality as we seem to have a sense that many of these actions are in fact immoral in some sense. If our sense of morality comes from God, then how could we feel this way?

I think a reasonable counterargument might be that while God's actions are perfectly moral, we may perceive them to be immoral due to our limited understanding and knowledge. Perhaps the consequences of God making other choices would be worse somehow. Even so, it is hard to conceive of any circumstances in which the eternal torture of non-believers could be the lesser of two evils.

In that case, it may be that the teachings of religion are incorrect on many historical and factual points about God - for example perhaps the flood never happened, perhaps God never condoned genocide, and perhaps infidels are not punished for eternity. This argument is of course incompatible with religious fundamentalism, but perhaps more liberal religious believers may subscribe to it.

Can holy books be the source of morality?

There is a particularly grave inconsistency for those who claim that they derive their morality from the study of holy books such as the Bible, and this is that there are numerous injunctions and proscriptions in the Bible and other holy books which most adherents feel free to ignore. Few modern Christians feel that it is appropriate to execute a woman who is found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, just as few will have moral issues with eating "abominations" such as pork or crab, and yet fundamentalist Christians proclaim that homosexuality is evil because the Bible says so. Clearly, the Bible can not be the source of their morality. It must instead serve as a post hoc rationalisation of moral preferences that have some other basis, whether genetic, cultural, or intrinsic to the universe somehow.

There is also the problem that many holy books are riddled with inconsistencies and are open to multiple interpretations. Using them as the fundamental basis for any code of morality is surely problematic.

A non-fundamentalist believer might reasonably respond that our sense of morality does indeed come from God yet not from the Bible or other holy books. God's will is revealed not by studying scripture, but by listening to one's conscience. In that case, it is puzzling that the consciences of different people will often fail to agree. Perhaps this is just one of many ways in which we are imperfect. Perhaps, just as people have varying degrees of intelligence, they have varying degrees of ability in divining God's will. One wonders why God would have created us so. Unfortunately it is often much more difficult to determine who is correct in moral disagreements than it is in tests of raw intelligence, so it would seem that we are out of luck.

Alternatively, perhaps God is the source of morality but God's will is simply unknown. In this case there may be an objective morality but there may be no objective way to determine what it is. This seems to be me to be equivalent in practice to assuming that morality has no objective reality at all.

Why suppose that God is moral?

Finally, one might make the point that it does not follow from God's existence that we should obey him. Perhaps there really is a God, but perhaps he is not moral. Why should it follow that an omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe is necessarily the one true moral authority? Could such a being not be evil, creating the universe to amuse himself with our suffering? Could humans in principle not be morally superior?

Well, perhaps so, but to make that point you would have to assume some other source for objective morality, and in any case, this is not the God postulated by most religions. Devotees of these religions maintain that morality can only be objective if it emanates from a just, loving God, and God is usually described so. They usually find ways to rationalise God's cruelty by maintaining that it is all part of a bigger plan or that the consequences for any other choice of his would be worse than those we question. This seems reasonably logically coherent to me, apart from the fact it requires a belief in God.


Unlike many of my fellow atheists, I think that were a perfect, loving God to exist, morality may indeed have some sort of objective existence. However, this seems relatively useless to us as there seems to be no way to know what this morality is. There is no way to know which, if any, is the "right" religion. Holy books seem to be useless for deciding moral issues, as discussed abovet.

Perhaps we don't need holy books. We may assume instead that all of morality can be boiled down to a few simple God-given axioms from which other moral values can be derived. As William Lane Craig says in the debate above:
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the whole moral duty of man can be summed up in the two great commandments: First, you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength and with all your soul and with all your heart and with all your mind, and, second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. 
The problem then is knowing which axioms are correct. How can William Lane Craig or anybody else claim to know that these commandments are the ones which form the basis for objective morality? Furthermore, they offer little help in deciding difficult moral questions such as the morality of euthanasia or abortion. Does loving my neighbour imply that I should assist in suicide or prolong life? Does an embryo count as a neighbour? If those axioms form the basis of all Judeo-Christian morality, why is it that most orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians view homosexuality as a sin?

Even if I became a believer tomorrow, I feel I would still need to be a moral skeptic. Perhaps God can provide the objective basis for morality in principle, but this seems to be less than useless in practice.


  1. This is a very good critique of Divine command theory (DCT) and religious morality. However, I object to the following remarks in your conclusion:

    Unlike many of my fellow atheists, I think that were a perfect, loving God to exist, morality may indeed have some sort of objective existence…Perhaps God can provide the objective basis for morality in principle, but this seems to be less than useless in practice.

    I think what allows you to make such a statement is the fact that you left out the most fundamental critique of DCT, namely the Euthyphro Dilemma of Plato’s popular dialogue, Euthyphro. The dilemma, in short, is that either God has reasons for his moral commands or He doesn’t. If He does have reasons, then the objective truth of morality exists in those reasons, and God is unnecessary and does not provide the objective basis as claimed. And if God does not have reasons for why He commands one thing and not another, then his commands —as well as the basis of morality—are subjective and arbitrary. And positing the existence of a God once again does nothing to improve the objectivity of moral truths.

    You soundly argued why DCT is useless “in practice”, but the Euthyphro dilemma makes clear why God does not provide an objective basis to morality even in principle. And this, ultimately, is because the existence of a cosmic dictator is fundamentally irrelevant to morality, which is intrinsically about the wellbeing of conscious creatures. Period. The objectivity of morality exists in the objective facts of conscious pains and suffering and pleasures and thriving—as Sam Harris argues, I believe, successfully. These things (viz. pains and pleasures) may be known subjectively, but they are objective facts of the universe nonetheless, as well as are their causes (i.e. there is an objective, scientifically demonstrable, difference between healthy [physically and psychologically] people and unhealthy ones, as well as thriving societies and crippling ones. And I think the mere fact of one being a living, rationally conscious agent in this world commits him to the game of rational moral discourse—valuing life is an intrinsic property of being alive. And from this fundamental value, I think the rest of ethics rationally follows.)

    I started to ramble a bit, but what are your thoughts about the Euthyphro dilemma? I have never seen an adequate response to it.

  2. P.S. the post screwed with my formatting and didn't include my hyperlink to a more formal explanation of the Euthyphro Dilemma, which one can find here:

  3. I think my answer to this argument is that I see no problem in God's morality being arbitrary, or at least no more arbitrary than the laws of physics.

    Why should an electron be attracted to a proton? Because of a seemingly arbitrary force we call the electromagnetic force, which is part of a system of mathematical rules and principals we call "natural law".

    Similarly, why is murder immoral? Because of an arbitrary decree of a deity who said "Thou shalt not kill", a decree which is part of a system of moral rules and principals we could choose to call "religious morality".

    In this view, that which is moral is simply that which complies with God's wishes, by definition.

    It actually need not be the case that the deity's decrees are arbitrary. He may have reasons for the commands he issues, but we don't need to understand these reasons, and we certainly don't need to invoke some higher level of morality. It may be that God has some purpose for which he has created the universe, and the morality he has laid down is part of the plan to achieve this purpose.

    Now, pleasing a capricious God does not accord with your view of morality or with my own, but this is a view held by some religious people, and it is no more unreasonable from an objective perspective than insisting that morality is about the welfare of conscious creatures.

    Which all comes back to my point of view that there is no such thing as objective morality, although there may be objectively good ways to meet certain well-defined goals such as maximising the welfare of conscious creatures.

  4. The problem is that religious theists believe (as Craig claims in the debate you posted with Sam Harris) that the existence of a God grounds morality in a way that an atheistic universe cannot. And then they use this in conjunction with the fact that people intuitively believe that morality has objective truths to argue that a God must then exist. What the Euthyphro argument demonstrates, though, is that this is untrue--a metaphysical super being can ground morality no better than can an arbitrarily evolved universe. (Note, I have no a priori reason to disbelieve in a super-intelligence behind our existence; rather, i believe the burden of proof lies with any person claiming this is factually true, and I am utterly unimpressed so far with the cases made--particularly as they rest on the authority of ancient mythologies. Furthermore, I have come to distrust the motives of people who argue such, which i think are generally misguided.)

    You mentioned that Gods decrees need not be arbitrary, but notice that this is merely the second horn of the dilemma. In this case, the reasons that make Gods decisions morally true would surely hold for us as well--God is not then the measure of goodness, but rather those hypothetical reasons are.

  5. Well, I think a theistic basis for morality is more grounded than Sam Harris's, for example. If there is an omnipotent omniscient benevolent creator of the universe, then compliance with his will is a concept which might merit a label, and that label might as well be "morality".

    If it so happens that God wants us to be kind and compassionate for the most part, then theists seem to be somewhat reasonable in claiming God as the ultimate source of this moral sense we share (apart from the fact that there are other, more compelling explanations and that there is no evidence for God).

    Sam Harris's definition seems more arbitrary to me, but that might be a matter of taste.

    I don't think that non-arbitrary decrees are the second horn of the dilemma. God's decrees, if non-arbitrary, need not be grounded in some more fundamental moral law, but might be arrived at pragmatically in the pursuit of some goal which has nothing to do with morality.

    As a computer programmer, I write algorithms that modules of code follow to achieve my goals. If these modules were to become self-aware, they might question why they are compelled to follow these algorithms. Are these algorithms arrived at arbitrarily, or was the designer following some plan greater than himself?

    Well, neither of these is really the case - the programmer designed the algorithms with the aim of achieving a high level goal that is completely opaque to the individual modules of the system. Theistic morality might be like an algorithm that God has laid down for us to follow, not a system of moral values that he himself necessarily adheres to. Morality, like gravity, could be an aspect of the universe designed by God but which does not bind him. (In my view, whether God is moral himself is a separate question to whether God is the source of morality).

    Rather than asking whether morality has a level of objective reality above and external to God, we should perhaps be asking why a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient being should feel the need to create the universe in the first place. If we allow that he has created the universe for some purpose, then I see no problem with attributing aspects of that universe, including morality and gravity, as design elements which work towards whatever his ultimate goal is.

  6. I'm confused with the very first paragraph of your response, and so all that follows--namely because I think you, ironically, switch definitions of morality and assume something like Harris' understanding in order to make any sense.

    So, e.g., what does one mean in deeming God "benevolent" (i.e. maximally good). If one defines Gods commands as 'good', then saying he himself is "maximally good" is like saying God is maximally God--its just a meaningless redundancy. It seems though that this is not what one means when they describe God as "benevolent"--rather, one is relying on some other measure of goodness (namely his own conscious properties of experience) to hold against God and so to recognize him by. But the result of this then is that God does not ground morality (rather the nature of our conscious experience does, as Harris states.)

    You said: "I don't think that non-arbitrary decrees are the second horn of the dilemma. God's decrees, if non-arbitrary, need not be grounded in some more fundamental moral law, but might be arrived at pragmatically in the pursuit of some goal which has nothing to do with morality."

    What do you mean by 'morality' in this case? If God has a reasoned purpose to his creating the universe, is it or is it not ultimately a moral one? In other words, you seem to want to say that God has reasons for his actions. But these reasons must exist due to the fact that God values some states of existence to others. But the dilemma then is, either God is omnipotent, but a random generator of reasons for his creations and commands (in which case God values not some particular end and his reasons are arbitrary), or he does value and work towards some end, and the reason he does so would be just as valid to any other conscious creatures--namely us humans; thus it would be just as reasonable for us to pursue such an end if God didn't exist than if he did. And one has not grounded morality in God, but on such reasons.

    Thus, I don't see how you have made any sense of morality, let alone provided it with any special non-arbitrary grounding, by introducing God. Rather, it seems to me that you have merely adopted an immoralist philosophy and said simply that it would be wise for us to follow the commands of a maximally powerful being, for goodness is merely the will of the strongest. In which case, we ought to agree God is irrelevant and should begin a discussion about other possible modes to understand ethics by--namely Harris' conception, which i think does the trick

    1. I'm not trying to say God is maximally good. I'm not even basing my argument on God being benevolent, although I did mention this. I'll come back to the issue of benevolence in a moment.

      I'm just saying that if God created this universe, then he created this universe for a purpose.

      If he created the universe for a purpose, then that universe has characteristics designed to achieve that purpose.

      It may be that God's purpose requires us to have certain behavioural preferences and values, and so he lays down some absolute moral laws which become intrinsic to the universe and imbues us with a sense of morality to perceive this.

      This moral sense may be fallible, as are the rest of our senses, but for most people it may give some sort of intuitive feel for rightness (compliance with God's moral rules) or wrongness (defiance of God's moral rules).

      Thus, morality may be objectively real, in the same sense that gravity is objectively real, but yet be contingent, just as physical laws might be. Some other God in some other universe might have laid down entirely different moral rules and sentient beings in that universe might have very different moral beliefs than we have.

      Now, for benevolence. I don't think this means maximally good in a sense that actually assumes some prior sense of morality. Literally, it means well-wishing, which I take to mean that God values our welfare and wants us to be happy, healthy etc. This is not a definition that depends on some prior definition of "goodness", it's just a description of what it is that God happens to value.

      So it's not that I was describing God as being a good being, begging the question of what it means to be good, I was just saying that God might be a being that we would call good based on the sense of morality which he may have imparted to us, because we happen to think that valuing the welfare of people is a good thing.

      I don't think there's anything circular there. The buck stops with God. That which is moral is that which complies with God's moral laws. God himself may or may not be "good" when judged by these moral laws.

      Now, your representation of Harris's position is that it is our conscious experience is what determines good from bad. If, on the one hand, morality is grounded in God, then our conscious experience is the way it is because God has set it up just so, and so ultimately it still comes down to God.

      If morality is not grounded in God, then you have the problem where different people have different moral perspectives. Psychopaths do not care for the well-being of others -- how can we argue that they are wrong, that our conscious experience is more valid than theirs? That they are in the minority seems to be a poor answer - we might encounter an alien race where everyone is a psychopath. How could we persuade them to change their ways by arguing that our conscious experiences are more valid than theirs?

    2. ' If God has a reasoned purpose to his creating the universe, is it or is it not ultimately a moral one? '

      No, it's amoral. Morality in the metaphysics I'm proposing would be an aspect of the universe and wouldn't really apply to God or his actions, except insofar as we might attempt to apply his own moral rules to judge his behaviour. As far as I'm concerned, God is allowed to be a hypocrite. He is no more subject to his moral rules than he is to gravity.

      Not sure I really follow the rest of that paragraph, particularly "and the reason he does so would be just as valid to any other conscious creatures--namely us humans;".

      In any case, it seems to matter little if you choose to describe morality as grounded in God or grounded in God's reasons. Either way, you have used God to provide an objective basis for morality.

      The question is not whether morality is arbitrary or not. The question is whether it has an objective basis in reality. I have described how God may have chosen moral rules for non-arbitrary reasons, but even if you want to argue that God chose the moral rules arbitrarily, that's fine by me. They could still be an intrinsic aspect of the universe with an objective ontological reality, albeit one that we could never prove empirically.

      Nowhere in my argument do I actually advise that we should follow the will of God because might makes right. I'm simply describing how it is coherent to suppose that morality has a basis in God's will. God's omnipotence or ability to reward and punish us has nothing to do with it. My argument would hold even if God were dead.

      My own position is that morality has no objective basis in reality. However, if we can all agree that we seek to advance the well-being of conscious creatures (or at least humans, or at least conscious humans), and I think 99.999% of us do, then of course we can attempt to develop a science of morality with that as its goal, just as we do with medicine.

      My main issue with Harris in this respect is that he is overselling his point by contending that he has shown how morality has an objective reality of its own quite apart from our preferences.

  7. Having read back over my original post, I note that I was assuming a "good" God, while in these comments I have backed away from that and maintained that God need not be good for morality to come from him.

    I suppose I seem inconsistent, and this is probably a result of me playing Devil's advocate for positions I don't actually hold as I am an atheist.

    So, while I stand by my original post, I actually consider the question of God's goodness to be a red herring in the question of whether morality could have a basis in God.

  8. Yeah, I understand that you are playing devils advocate; however, I think you have begun trying too hard at this and, as a result, have been unable to grasp the fundamental insight behind the Euthyphro dilemma which I posed--which I think is key to the philosophy of morality. (Also, I think you are being infinitely more lenient here to "God" than you are to Harris.)

    First, to be clear, lets assume that morality generally is the topic of how we ought to live, and why?

    Okay, now you said: "The question is not whether morality is arbitrary or not. The question is whether it has an objective basis in reality."

    Really? Coin tosses have an objective basis in reality! And they can be every bit as arbitrary at determining how we ought to live as God can. So why not deem some specific coin to hold ultimate authority (indeed, we can even refer to it as 'God'), and by your conception we will better establish the truths of moral propositions then Harris does with his theory.

    The obvious problem here is that the arbitrary flip of a coin does not establish the truth of, e.g., the proposition, "punting babies is wrong." And neither does a super-powerful beings arbitrarily declaring, "punting babies is wrong." For the initial question of "Why?" remains every bit as valid. So the question is not just about objectivity in reality as you claim, irrelevant of being arbitrary. (Thus, the problem of the first horn of the Euth. dilemma. So then we move on to the second horn where God has reasons for his moral declarations.)

    You say: 1. "[God] created this universe for a purpose."
    2. "God values our welfare and wants us to be happy, healthy etc...[which are] what it is that God happens to value."
    3. "I don't think there's anything circular there. The buck stops with God. That which is moral is that which complies with God's moral laws. God himself may or may not be "good" when judged by these moral laws."

    So, again, why is "punting babies is wrong" a true proposition by this conception? Because God has a purpose. Okay, well what is that? You say it might include human well-being, which he likely values. But why can't I throw your objection to Harris back at you and demand for a reason why this is valuable? Notice that any reason God gives will be just as valid to Harris (and you, and me, and every other rational being). And we can Occam Razor God out of the discussion. The buck stops with those reasons, NOT with God.

    One has not made moral propositions any more objectively true by hypothesizing the existence of a God.

    Please see my post for a fuller representation of the Euthyphro Dilemma:

  9. I'm not sure whether I have failed to grasp the Euthyphro dilemma or whether you have failed to grasp my perspective. I'm going to post first assuming the latter is the case, and then follow up later with another direct answer to the dilemma, referencing your blog and what others such as Bertrand Russell have said of it.

    My criticism of Harris is that he is claiming to have shown that morality has an objective basis in reality, not that his morality is wholly arbitrary.

    As such, I am only concerned with the objective reality of moral law, not with whether it is arbitrary or not. Physical laws may be arbitrary (e.g. why should matter attract instead of repel) but they are certainly objectively real.

    My argument does not advise compliance or defiance of God's dictats. It does not answer the question "Why ought I not punt a baby?" Instead, it answers the question "Why do we all agree that punting babies is wrong?"

    In this view, the reason punting babies is wrong is simply because God has decided it is wrong. We all share a moral intuition of this wrongness. To ask why this is the case is like asking why the charge of the electron has the value it has.

    There may or may not be a satisfactory answer, but in fact there doesn't have to be a satisfactory answer for it to be true that punting babies is wrong, as evidenced by our shared moral intuitions.

    So I can give you no argument for why you should not punt a baby. You are free to defy God's will, and this defiance could be perfectly rational (as long as you foresee no negative consequences for yourself).

    Nevertheless, I suspect you would not punt a baby (even for a substantial reward) should the opportunity present itself. Had you not read The Moral Landscape, you would still view this act with disgust, not because of any logical argument, but because God had designed you so.

    So, the difference between God's will and a coin toss is that we don't, in general, feel the instinctive urge to interpret arbitrary chance events as moral imperatives, while we do feel God's will through our moral sense.

    We need no satisfying logical arguments for why certain acts are immoral. It is sufficient that we fervently and intuitively believe that they are. My argument gives one explanation as to why this might be.

    God's reasons for choosing his moral rules may be no more valid or well-founded than Sam Harris's. The difference is that God, as creator of the universe, has the power to implement his laws as a fundamental aspect of the universe so that all conscious being perceive them through their moral sense. Sam Harris, on the other hand, is just a man, with no power to grant his ideas objective reality.

    Thus, we cannot Occam Razor God out of the discussion because God is required to give objective reality to these laws, just as God is required to give objective reality to the laws of nature.

  10. Now to come back to Euthyphro's dilemma. I'll work from the detailed discussion on your blog.

    I think I'll use an analogy to a lawmaker during this discussion. Let's assume this lawmaker is making laws for a new country which has no constitution or else it doesn't quite work.

    " Is that which is morally good simply whatever it is that God commands it to be, if we assume His existence, or does God recognize that which is good and command it for the reasons that make it good? "

    Let's say I choose the former answer. Something is the law simply because the lawmaker commands it to be.

    "First, this necessarily entails that God has no reasons for why he commands one thing and not another."

    No it doesn't. God could have practical rather than moral reasons for commanding one thing and not another. A lawmaker does not typically make laws because he recognises a higher legal reality (particularly if there is no constitution). His reasons may have something to do with improving the economy, for example. In any case, this is a red herring as I see no problem with God's laws being arbitrary.

    "He could just have easily commanded stealing and would have been entirely justified in doing so."


    "And second, morality clearly does not function this way. There simply are many reasons why stealing is bad (as I alluded to above) and should be condemned."

    That's an assertion with no foundation that I can see. There are reasons that stealing reduces the well-being of conscious creatures, but that doesn't tell me why I ought to care about the well-being of conscious creatures other than myself.

    "If our adopted position were true, then humans would be completely ignorant of any notion of good and bad aside from the simple commands of God. No other reasons would exist!"

    Agreed. And so the citizens of this country would be completely ignorant of what was legal or illegal if it were not for the laws provided by the lawmaker. In fact, without a lawmaker, even the concept of legality itself is incoherent. By analogy, without a God, the idea of absolute morality becomes incoherent.

    So, if God commanded that we should steal, then we would perceive stealing as good. If God commanded nothing, then we would have no moral sense. I see no problem with this.

    I think the Euthyphro dilemma might be more of a problem to theists who have a certain fixed concept of a perfectly good God and an intuition that moral law is absolute and could not be otherwise. As an atheist, I am wedded to neither position, so I don't think it's a problem for me.

    Even though I don't believe in God, if we allow for the sake of argument that God does exist, then I see nothing incoherent in the view that morality might stem from God. In fact, without such a supernatural basis, I find it hard to think of any reason to believe in moral reality at all.

    That doesn't mean I'm immoral. I don't need a reason to be moral - I just am. I think this is something I would like to touch on a bit more at some later date, but I'm of the view that no desire is rational.

    Rationality might help us to achieve our desires, but the desires themselves are something else. There is no rational reason to desire pleasure, or to desire to exist, and yet I desire both. Similarly, there is no rational reason to desire to be moral, and yet I do. Just because there is no rational reason, though, doesn't meant that these desires are irrational. Rather, they are "arational".

    Enough! Let's leave it there for now.

  11. Thanks for that reply.

    I think our dispute may come down to three points:

    1. Your notion of "God" is so stripped down that I think it most resembles deism (not theism, as you mention)--where merely religious language is used to refer to the laws of nature, etc. But in this case I could actually subscribe to such a God (which here would refer to what ever fundamental phenomena is responsible for shaping the nature of our universe of existence). And I think this is where the buck does indeed stop, and it is meaningless to question further--but we can, I would argue, drop the religious language due to its many confusing connotations in connection with mythology. And then we will have adequately grounded ethics in the nature of life and the causal laws and phenomena of the universe.

    2. We probably need to distinct, as Harris does in his book, between ontological objectivity and epistemological objectivity. For if one is concerned, as you say you are, not with "Why" one thing is moral over another, but why we all "agree", then the issue seems to me to be about moral epistemology (i.e. how we know), not the metaphysics of morality (i.e. what is). And I think the answer to this is simply scientifically determining what essentially causes conscious life to thrive, opposed to die. I think for Harris, He grounds morality, ontologically, on the arbitrary (or not) nature of the world and consciousness; And his major claim is that, given such an ontology, we can use science to determine objective knowledge about better and worse ways to act and live.

    3. I want to respond to the questioned you have posed a number of times now: "why ought I to care about the well-being of those other than myself."

    I think we can assume a form of the anthropic principle, and acknowledged first that such a question only has meaning to those who consciously exist and thereby value their own conscious well-being. And from here, we humans emotionally value the well-being of others though are ability to empathize, but I think such would follow from pure rationality as well; because our own well-being is intrinsically tied with that of those around us--life is typically NOT a zero-sum game. I think the "Prisoner Dilemma" is a good example of this:

    -And we can leave this discussion there; I have no more real qualms.

    But before leaving the topic entirely, Have you read Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom's essay on the Simulation Argument? This seems to me to be far better than any theistic argument with the most persuasive religious implications. Check it out:

    and here for its religious implications:

  12. 1. What you describe as deism (identifying God with the laws of nature) is not deism but pantheism. Deists believe that a God created the universe but don't hold with religion or scripture and do not believe that God intervenes in his creation. My notion of God is not so much stripped down as it is undefined. It's not that I'm arguing for a deist God -- I'm saying we don't know anything about God so it's silly to go making positive claims about his specific characteristics.

    All you need to ground morality is a deist God, although a theist God would also work. I'm not arguing for grounding morality in the nature of life and in the (other) laws of the universe, I'm arguing that if there were a conscious, thinking, planning entity behind the design of the universe, that entity could have explicitly included moral laws in the fabric of the universe.

  13. 2. I'm not talking at all about moral epistemology. I'm not interested in how we know -- I'm interested in the very fact that we believe we know. Why is this the case? My own belief is that we evolved that way. A theist can claim that we believe we know these moral truths because God has given us a moral sense - implying that morality has an objective reality. We all agree killing infants for fun is evil. I'm not asking how we know this. I'm not asking for logical reasons explaining why it's evil. What I am asking is whether it is really possible to give an objective truth value to the predicate "Killing babies is wrong" in the way it is to the predicate "Matter is attracted to matter". My concern in these articles is all about Harris's moral ontology.

    "He grounds morality, ontologically, on the arbitrary (or not) nature of the world and consciousness;"

    This is basically the fundamental point where I disagree with Harris. He has grounded only one particular conception of morality - he has not given adequate reason to claim that this is the only valid conception of morality and has not established its objective reality. At best he has established a theoretical framework, akin to a new branch of mathematics. He has not shown that morality actually exists by demonstrating something akin to a new branch of physics.

  14. 3."And from here, we humans emotionally value the well-being of others though are ability to empathize"

    Ok, but suppose I don't have this emotional concern for others?

    Furthermore, if we base morality on our emotions, then it's hard to argue against those who view (homosexuality/abortion/interracial marriage/ethnic groups) with disgust.

    "but I think such would follow from pure rationality as well; because our own well-being is intrinsically tied with that of those around us--life is typically NOT a zero-sum game."

    I disagree. Slavery could help to get us out of the current recession. My own well-being (and perhaps the aggregate well-being of all) might be improved by decreasing the well-being of certain others. Certainly there are many cases where the most rational thing to do for the purely self-interested would be to exploit others for the benefit of the self. The Prisoner's Dilemma might explain why evolution has given us certain emotions and irrational behaviours over the course of countless millennia, but it doesn't give us a rational reason to act morally counter to our own interests in any specific situation.

    Any argument for morality based on self-interest is going to fail because there are many situations where it won't apply. It gives us no reason to care about people with no power to reciprocate. Why should I donate money in aid for starving people in Africa? Why should I care about the suffering of animals in factory farms? Why should I care about the plight of the slaves in my field as long as they're making me rich?

    Again, I want to make it clear that I do care about others. But this has no basis in rationality or philosophy. It has to do with who I am as a product of my culture, genes and upbringing. It's that emotional empathy you mentioned, not something that can be claimed as objectively real morality.

    So, I think it is futile to argue with a rational psychopath, AI or space alien who does not share these values to persuade them that they should care about the well-being of other conscious creatures. Do you disagree?

  15. I'm reasonably well acquainted with the simulation argument, however I don't take it seriously any more as it is made pretty much obsolete by my interpretation of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis.

    The simulation argument probably had a large part to do with my coming to my current world-view, but it's just a step on the road and I've left it behind long ago.

    According to my current world-view, it is equally true to say that we are and are not the subject of a simulation. It is of no consequence. If we are in a simulation (and we must be, for all possible universes exist and a universe in which we are simulated is possible), and the simulation is turned off, we would continue to exist regardless because what we inhabit is a mathematical construct, and mathematical objects exist (platonically) independently of whether any given mathematician or computer is working on them.

    A simulation is a window into a mathematical reality for observers on the outside, it is not something that confers existence on something which did not previously exist.

    I'm as sure about this stuff as I am of anything, but I realise I haven't justified these views. I could attempt to do so but that's a whole other discussion.

  16. 1. "He has grounded only one particular conception of morality..." Please give me a moral theory that is completely divorced of any notion of conscious well-being.

    2. I disagree with your response to the prisoners dilemma. Imagine a world identical to ours, but which reinstates slavery. It might (maybe) immediately increase the net well-being on the planet; but surely we can agree that a world that solves its problems by creative means instead will have an even greater net well-being. But this second, greater, possibility would be entirely inaccessible to such a world utilizing slavery; on the landscape of possible states of well-being, the highest peaks will be inaccessible to those worlds full of individuals who do not care for others.

    It is indeed rational to care for the well-being of others--even those on entirely different continents; for not doing so produces things like world war and terrorism (i.e. it does no real good for the U.S., e.g., to thrive if Germany is failing and so gives way to the Nazi party; or if the middle east is failing and so becomes corrupted by terrorist cells.)

    3. I am very partial to the mathematical Universe Hypothesis; however, the major undercutting defeater to this is supposed to be the existence of qualia--subjective sensual perceptions (e.g. seeing the color red, pain, etc.)--and the semantics it provides our language with.

    In other words, I dont see how semantics can be reduced to syntax, nor how qualia can emerge from mathematics.

    What do you think about this critique? (Which is posed by Dave Chalmers, John Searle, Frank Jackson, etc.)

    1. 1. "Please give me a moral theory that is completely divorced of any notion of conscious well-being."

      I can name quite a few alternative moral axioms to Harris's. Some of them may even be divorced from the idea of well-being, but I regard that as an unnecessarily stringent criterion for proposing alternatives to Harris's morality. So, if Harris's morality is that you ought to maximise the well-being of conscious creatures, then how about these for alternatives?

      -- You ought to obey the will of God (divine command theory)
      -- You ought to obey the dice (the dice man)
      -- You ought to obey your authority figure (royalism/fascism/authoritarianism/military code)
      -- You ought to serve your country (patriotism)
      -- You ought to do what is best for your family
      -- You ought to follow the traditions of your ancestors (traditionalism)
      -- You ought to act to preserve your honour (samurai/klingon)
      -- You ought to follow the law (lawful-neutral alignment)
      -- You ought to act rationally in your own self interest (Ayn Rand's objectivism)
      -- You ought to follow your conscience
      -- You ought to seek pleasure in the moment (hedonism)
      -- You ought to follow some idiosyncratic personal moral code (Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men)

      Harris could argue for many of these that such moral frameworks arise out of considerations for the well-being of all, however that doesn't answer the point in my view. There could be individuals who base their morality on these axioms rather than Harris's and so who would make rational well-informed decisions that are counter to what Harris would have them do. In my opinion, Harris would have no grounds for arguing that they acted immorally from an objective perspective, he can only argue that they acted immorally within this particular framework which he has proposed.

      The only one of these I view as having a special claim on objective reality is the first, because God could have created moral laws as an objectively real aspect of this universe -- laws which we all perceive through our moral intuition.

    2. 2. Rational arguments for morality

      Perhaps a more creative solution than slavery would lead to better net well-being for all, but say we have a thought experiment where I'm a slave-owner who doesn't particularly care about the well-being of my slaves. Your argument doesn't move me because I don't care about the net well-being of all, I only care about the well-being of me, my family and my peer group. If I believe that the needs of this group of people is best served by slavery, then I oppose emancipation and I am perfectly rational in doing so.

      If you argue that I actually would be better off without slavery for some reason, then you haven't proven the point. It just means that we need to find another example where self-interest actually is in conflict with the interest of the world at large. They are surely not always in agreement.

      And this ties into your other point. Yes, for many particular cases, you might make a convincing argument for why we are better off taking the moral course of action, e.g. to reduce terrorism. But surely you must admit that there will always be cases where this is not true -- there will be cases where self-interest is not best served by acting morally. You might recall that the prisoners dilemma does not apply where there is no possibility of reciprocation, and abstaining from terrorism is a form of reciprocation.

      It is in these non-reciprocal cases that no compelling argument can be made for a perfectly rational amoral entity to behave morally. Any scenario where you dominate or destroy others so completely that they can never punish you does not permit a rational argument for altruism. For example, if you allow for a moment that eating meat is permissible, how then would you attempt to persuade a factory farmer that his process is immoral due to the suffering it causes his animals, which are after all conscious creatures?

      These arguments do not provide a reason to be moral in general, to view morality as an end in itself. They do not explain why we should actually care about the well-being of others, they only argue that we should act "morally" in certain specific situations for selfish reasons.

      It seems clear to me that arguments of this sort are post-hoc rationalisations of required conclusions. We all intuit that there is such a thing as morality and that we ought to behave morally -- now we desperately need to find an argument to support this so that we can congratulate ourselves on our rationality.

      It's just like Harris says to Craig: religious people are not going to go on murderous rampages if they lose their faith, so religion cannot be the basis of their morality. Well, likewise, philosophers are not going to become amoral beasts if they lose their rationalisations. Were I to succeed in convincing you that morality is not based on reason, I imagine that you would not suddenly become immoral. Thus, it is clear to me that your morality is not ultimately based on reason.

      I need no more reason to justify my concern with the well-being of others than I need to justify my concern with my own welfare, or my house needs a justification for being brown. I care about others not for any "reason", but because this caring is part of who I am. I have been built this way by evolution, by society, by my parents or by God.

      That's enough for me.

    3. 3. Qualia and Consciousness in the context of the MUH

      I have a lot to say on this subject. I think I might write some blog posts on it. In the meantime I will give you an overview of my position without fully justifying it.

      You are quite right that qualia and consciousness are difficult phenomena to explain. This is true within any world view which assumes that all phenomena have naturalistic causes, not just the MUH. The same criticism could be made of Bostrom's simulation argument, and this is essentially the whole idea behind Searle's Chinese Room criticism of strong AI.

      Nevertheless, the fact remains that we are conscious, yet most rationalists believe that all phenomena in this universe are the products of natural law. Naturalism implies that consciousness is a result of natural processes occurring within the brain. Brain processes are amenable to mathematical modelling or computer simulation. It seems unreasonable to suppose that there is anything magic about the specific hardware we use to perform mental computations (i.e. neurons, neurotransmitters, etc). Therefore many people believe that were the same processes occurring within an artificial substrate, the same consciousness would arise. In other words, it is the complex algorithms and processes which matter, not the physical substrate.

      My own take on it is that consciousness and qualia are simply aspects of what it is like to be a complex, self-reflecting super-algorithm with senses and drives.

      Let's take qualia first. If we have an evolutionary need to be able to distinguish red from green, pleasure from pain, etc, it stands to reason that we should have mental "circuits" corresponding to these concepts, whether hard-wired or learned. If we must be aware of these differences, then these circuits must have some discernible effect on our consciousness and it is these effects we choose to call sensations or qualia. It's not really clear to me that there is a big mystery to answer here in actuality.


    4. As for consciousness, I think this is relates to our evolutionary need to be able to monitor our own mental processes and experiences. In this view, consciousness is a kind of internal sense where the state of mental processes are detected and analysed. I would expect some level of rudimentary consciousness to be experienced by any such self-monitoring system of sufficient complexity.

      True, there is something unintuitive going on here, but it is quite difficult to state the problem of consciousness in a way which demonstrates there actually is a mysterious phenomenon to explain. My suspicion is that there is no mystery other than our own false intuition that our internal lives must have an existence independent of the simple laws of the natural world. For more on this, my views probably largely accord with those of Dan Dennett's.

      So, how do we get from the syntax to the semantics, as you say? Recommended reading here, and on consciousness generally, is "Godel, Escher, Bach", a wonderful book by Douglas Hofstadter. It's a wide-ranging, digressive work with as its central theme the idea that "strange loops" (by which he means recursive, self-reflecting structures) might have something to do with consciousness.

      My interpretation is that our minds view the world as a semantic web. It is possible to model the world as a series of connections between unidentified symbols which represent concepts. You might view these connections and symbols as being the syntax. A simple semantic web might admit of an unlimited number of interpretations, and so there is no way to derive the semantics from the syntax. The interesting thing is that when this web of connections becomes sufficiently complex, and particularly when it gets associated with hard-wired mental responses such as pleasure, pain, sensory qualia etc, the semantic web becomes less and less ambiguous. Finally, there is only one way to interpret all this syntax, and that's how we get the semantics.

      This gradual derivation of meaning from complexity, starting with more ambiguous structures, is possibly what is going on in early childhood development. Perhaps the reason few of us can remember much from our first couple of years is that these memories would have preceded our ability to ascribe semantics to our mental model. Pure speculation!

      To bring it back to the MUH, I think you pretty much need to assume these problems are solved by arguments such as the above, just as you do with any other world view which is predicated on naturalism (in my view). If you accept the simulation argument or the possibility of strong AI, or even if you believe that our consciousness is just an emergent property of a complex natural system, then these issues should pose no especial obstacle to your acceptance of the MUH.

      If you do not subscribe to naturalism, for example if you are a Cartesian dualist, I would not expect to convert you to the MUH without first converting you to naturalism.