Monday, February 25, 2013

God doesn't give us moral ontology

Moral ontology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with how we can know that morality "exists," and in what capacity that is meaningful. Though an interesting question through the ages, it has essentially morphed over time into a banner of pretentious bullshit behind which theologians believe that they are making qualified and important arguments. They aren't. Indeed, moral ontology is one of the branches of "philosophy" that makes me question the endurance of the value of philosophy--certainly I suspect its days are numbered as being a field that addresses the big questions, instead taking on a role of handling synthesis and deriving understandable meaning from the more substantive work done in other fields.

Asides aside, last night on the Twitters, I was engaged by a fellow who wanted to tell me that faith is based upon evidence, and when pressed for evidence, he (predictably) went straight for moral ontology (his other options being other gaps in science like origins, teleology, consciousness/epistemology, or biopoesis). To cut out an unnecessary story, no evidence was presented, of course, leaving his claim that faith is based upon evidence (instead of defined to be the exact opposite of that) on the lack of ground that we all know and love.

I rather love when I get this moral ontology crap, almost like the person presenting it watched a couple of sweet William Lane Craig videos on YouTube and brought that fallacy-ridden mess straight over, with all the usual smugness and only a fraction of the (appearance of*) sophistication. *I say "appearance of" because theology possesses no sophistication, only sophistry.

Why I love getting the moral ontology line:

His claim, in essence, is that "on atheism, we do not possess the ability to say why care and flourishing are 'good' while harm and suffering are 'bad.'"

Say what? Yeah, I know. He did it better than that, though, indicating that "on atheism, it is merely a preference not to rape little innocent children."

So, this does me a huge favor as someone who argues for doing better than falling for theological nonsense. This fellow has illustrated very clearly how much theological thinking can warp one's sense of moral understanding. To be clear, moral ontology or not, it is perfectly clear to every well-adjusted human being on the planet why it is not okay to rape an innocent child.

Theists--even philosophers--making these kinds of arguments do us all the enormous favor of painting very clearly a portrait of why we needn't listen to them about questions of morality. Their moral compass is skewed by pitching salience for absoluteness and objectivity.

His other ridiculous claim

Of course, he wasn't merely suggesting this nonsense in order to talk about how he thinks atheism fails. He wanted to illustrate how theology succeeds, and indeed, he said that there is a clear moral ontology that underlies the theological approach--noting when pressed that moral epistemology (how we know right from wrong) is not necessarily made perfectly clear by "holy" books like the Bible and Qur'an. The problem is that theology doesn't succeed here any more than it does in explaining how the universe came to be ("God spoke it into existence"), how life arose ("God spoke some of it into existence while fashioning other bits out of dirt, blood, and bones"), or how gravity works ("God..." oh yeah, they don't even try that one).

Here's the important bit: his statement amounts to the following conditional, highlighted by putting it in indented offset:
If God exists, and if God is a moral lawgiver, then we have sufficient moral ontology.
What gets glazed over here are those two ifs. See them? IF God exists, and IF God is a moral lawgiver.... None of that is established at any point (because it can't be--indeed proving those things is the purpose of the discussion). Instead, it is kept hidden under all the pretentious bullshit that attempts to keep the burden on the atheist rather than where it belongs, on the theist, who (if you pay attention) does not want to talk about God much in these "sophisticated" arguments until enough bullshit has been sprayed on the forum.

So, even if we grant the theologian this conditional statement, "If God exists, and if God is a moral lawgiver, then we have sufficient moral ontology," the theist has not succeeded in proving that there is a sufficient moral ontology. God doesn't give us moral ontology, even if we attempt to define Him as moral ontology itself--because God doesn't give us any credible reason to think He exists. Axiomatically saying "God is the foundation for morality" is circularity in action.

Is this trickery?

Many theologians would object at this point and argue that I'm neglecting how they use this. Their real effort is to make that conditional, then turn its contrapositive, and use that to prove God exists. The contrapositive of their conditional is logically equivalent, and in this case it reads: If we do not have sufficient moral ontology, then either God does not exist or God is not a moral lawgiver. This statement is hard to disagree with, frankly. It's a shame that theologians don't realize that the statement that they're resting upon is logically equivalent to something they don't want people to think too hard about.

In any case, they go on to try to prove that we do have sufficient moral ontology to tell right from wrong, but that's not part of the premise of either of the relevant conditionals. The conditional they need to use is "If there is sufficient moral ontology, then God exists and is a moral lawgiver." This, however, is the converse not the contrapositive of what they are arguing, and the converse is not logically equivalent to the original. Proving the converse does not establish what they want to establish.

[Easy example of these conditional formulations: If it is a bear, then it is an animal. This is true. The converse is "If it is an animal, then it is a bear." This is not necessarily true. The contrapositive is "If it is not an animal, then it is not a bear." It is also true.]

As it turns out, they're not able to even make that converse statement because they don't have the one thing for it that they would need: evidence. We could have a sufficient moral ontology, for instance, based upon something other than a moral lawgiver or God. It could be based upon something salient, like the actual experiences of real, sentient beings capable of flourishing and suffering. The claim is that without sufficient moral ontology, we cannot say why flourishing is "good" and suffering is "bad," instead that we merely have a "preference" for flourishing and to avoid suffering.

I'm totally okay with that!

Let's consider the matter: if there is a near-universal preference among sentience for flourishing over suffering, then it seems entirely reasonable to use that as the basis for a moral epistemology (a method by which we can know what is "good" and "bad") as any. Indeed, I'm not sure I can think of a better one. Indeed again, I can hardly think of a better use of the word "good" to mean "that which promotes flourishing and well-being" and the word "bad" to mean "that which causes harm and suffering." If we aren't going to call this "objective" morals, or morals that are ontologically sound, who in their right minds cares? It certainly seems inappropriate, at the least, to play with words like "mere preference" when there is so much salience behind those "preferences," if that is indeed what they are.

On theology, we're given the competing idea that "good" and "bad" are defined via what God has decreed meets those definitions, whether that be by having written ancient scriptures about "the law" or by writing on our own minds a knowledge of right and wrong. The problem--other than that it still requires the assumption that God exists to count as an actual ontology--is that this doesn't admit of a moral epistemology. Look at the 40,000+ denominations of Christianity, the existence of at least 19 other directly contradictory major religions, the religions that aren't major, the religions that are dead, and the imagination of the religions that don't yet exist or never will. How are we to pick which one provides the correct moral epistemology? They are all on equal footing with respect to credible evidence that supports them: goose-egg.

Theologians, then, which is it? Which religion provides the right moral epistemology to go with your axiomatically shoehorned moral ontology? How do you know? Why do you keep fighting bloody wars over it, then?

This is all an attempt to prove "objective" morals exist, which is muddy water

The entire Twitter engagement about moral ontology (which arose after being asked for evidence that God exists, recall) arose with "do you think objective morality exists?"

I answered this question the same way I answered it in God Doesn't; We Do. "It depends on how we define the word 'objective.'" I don't mean to play word games here--indeed, I think it's an interesting and hard question. Let me show you what I mean by showing you two ways we can interpret that term:
  1. The theist way: Objective morals are divine ethical laws that stem from a source outside of human minds (the fellow I talked with last night specifically said this, adding the words "transcendent" and "supernatural" in the mix).
  2. The science way: Objective morals are ethical guidelines that have been empirically determined to optimize values in salient metrics that gauge them.
Incidentally, while the term "supernatural" cannot apply to (2) above, the term "transcendent" can, but not in anything but the mundane "societies are bigger than individuals" sense.

So, I'm not being a jerk when I say that the term "objective morals" isn't sufficiently clear for me to answer the question of whether or not they exist. I suspect that there are some, perhaps one, answer to the definition (2)--although the salient metrics are likely to be very hard to determine and even harder to measure, perhaps impossible. Still, those metrics refer to moral epistemology, not ontology, and the suggestion that such a set of metrics meaningfully exists in principle is sufficient to have a moral ontology without any need for God. On the other hand, the definition (1) rests entirely on the God hypothesis, and so while I cannot say that I know for certain if it is correct, I say that it is likely to be incorrect, almost surely.

I'm also not being a jerk to point out something I think happens quite frequently with theologians: their reluctance to clarify which "objective morality" they mean here and to capitalize upon the two possible meanings. This is an extension of several games that they play of this sort, not least with the other relevant word here, "exist."

In any case, if we have to resort to the fact that morality has an inherently subjective component to it, requiring a more fluid understanding of ethics than otherwise, so be it. Subjective morals that aren't confused about raping children are almost surely better in all regards than objective morals that are.

Theologians, here's a tip: You're making your religion look horrible with this crap!

I don't think many theologians realize how utterly horrible this kind of crap makes their religions appear to the growing crowd that is more curious than credulous. When they are attempting to make statements that use as examples that reduce to something like "without God as a moral ontological foundation, thinking people are not able to say why it is inappropriate to rape an innocent child," they are saying something so horrendously out-of-step with what any not-brainwashed thinking person thinks that you're making their religions look like barbaric horror-mills, even when the subtle question of "does this guy want to rape kids, or what?" is dismissed as categorically untrue. It cannot go unsaid, though, that it is deeply troubling to see theologians arguing that without moral guidance from an invisible, silent God that we're all walking a thin line from being child rapists.

Let me help you here, theologians--stop making these kinds of arguments. Go back to the drawing board. You're exposing yourselves as peddlers of nonsense that is unhelpful and disturbing. As an antitheist, I'd encourage you in the endeavor, so helpful is it to us, but as a humanist who has heard too many of your flocks repeat this terrifying tripe with a straight face, as if they were on to something clever and deep, I can't help you help me.

(Fellow antitheists, fear not. This is one of their more effective arguments with those already in the fold, so for them to continue it helps us, and for them to abandon it also helps us.)


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