Bloating ontology with “moral facts”

J. Warner Wallace writes in his post Confusing Moral Utility With Moral Creation

“While I did not believe [as a non-Christian] moral truths were an expression of our genetic coding, I did believe we evolved as a species to embrace and use certain moral principles because they benefited our survival.”

This is misguided. Humans do not need the goal of human survival to adopt principles of behavior; we merely need emotional dispositions and the values that emerge from those dispositions. We don’t embrace moral principles to ensure our survival of our species any more than chimps enforce fairness within their communities to ensure the survival of their species. Just as from the emotions of chimps emerges the sense of fairness, so also do similar ethical standards emerge from human emotions.

In support of his claim that objective morality exists, J. Warner Wallace writes…

“Let me give you a comparative example. Imagine an ancient people group who, following a lightning storm, come upon a burning tree branch. Appreciating the heat generated from the small fire, they learn to control and maintain the flames for future use. As a result, they increase their survivability dramatically. They can now cook their food, increasing the variety and availability of certain nutrients. They can stay warm in cold weather and live comfortably in cold climates. They can keep nocturnal predators at bay. As other groups learn from their example, the controlled use of fire becomes a common feature of humanity.

Can we accurately say fire emerged through a process of sociocultural evolution? No. At best we can simply say that humans discovered fire and learned to apply its benefits to their specific situation. “

J. Warner Wallace’s analogy falls off the rails as soon as he suggests that the chemical reaction of fire in our clearly-evidenced physical world is analogous to non-evidence moral truths in a non-evidenced moral domain. This is cheating. It attempts to smuggle the scientifically undemonstrated in through a back door comparison with the scientifically demonstrated.

A legitimate analogy would be as follows.

  • Fire = Emotions (Both have been scientifically established as physical processes.)
  • Cooking Methods = Methods of regulating human behavior such as ethical standards and laws (These non-physical though non-supernatural phenomena are culturally emergent of and wholly dependent on their physical ontological priors, i.e., fire and emotions respectively.)

Neither fire nor emotions emerge through sociocultural evolution, but both cooking and ethics did.

Humans observed fire and learned to control fire with methods of fire-building to better their physical habitats.

Humans observed emotions and learned to control emotions with standards of behavior to improve their immediate social habitats rather than long-term survival of the species as J. Warner Wallace suggests.

J. Warner Wallace elaborates…

“So, even if I accepted the idea that humans evolved over time and embraced certain moral principles beneficial to their survival, I’d still be looking for the transcendent source of these moral concepts.”

Look no further than non-transcendent emotions. The objective substrate of emotions explain the emergence of standards of behavior just as the objective fact of fire explains the emergence of methods of cooking. These methods of cooking are limited by the nature of combustion, but do not require that we invoke anything beyond combustion. Imagine some individual thousands of years ago claiming that the flickering light we now know to be fire a manifestation of a forest deity. Now that we can explain that flickering light in terms of the chemical process of combustion, to continue to assert that the flickering light reflects the essence of some forest deity is rather silly. Now imagine someone thousands of years ago claiming that our behavioral dispositions a “transcendent morality”. Now that we can explain behavioral dispositions in terms of an emotional substrate, to continue to assert that the behavioral dispositions reflects a “transcendent morality” is likewise quite silly. Rather than objective morality being self-evident as many theists claim, it is actually emotions that lie clearly evidenced beneath the ethical standards they generate.

J. Warner Wallace continues…

“Transcendent, objective moral truths (like “It’s never OK to torture babies for the fun of it”) were true even before humans were able to comprehend or acknowledge them.”

J. Warner Wallace is again employing the ambiguous term “OK” in an attempt to conflate his notion of “objectively morally wrong” with others’ notion of “emotionally abhorrent”. I personally find it difficult to imagine his persistence in this is anything other than intentional equivocation. The ability to find an extreme case (torturing babies for fun) which few would call “OK” does not lend an ounce of support to an objective morality, but merely establishes what we already know; humans share emotions to a high degree. And this is not just affirmation. This is testable. Simply assess the correlation between differences in “moral” dispositions and degree of cultural commonality. There is an indisputable positive correlation between one’s “moral” disposition and one’s culture. Now, what would we expect if this thing called “morality” were objective? Would we need to point to the near universal agreement at the remote extremes of ethical questions such as the torturing of babies for fun J. Warner Wallace points to? Would not ethical opinions on all moral questions be unanimous across cultures? Any ad hoc explanation here will map precisely to the predictive and explanatory efficacy we would expect if emotions were the only source of ethical standards. The introduction of objective morality is superfluous since emotions are sitting in plain view as an adequate explanation for the convergence/disparity among ethical positions we see in the world today.

Consider the case of money. Do we need to invoke any transcendent and supernatural “monetary domain” in which we can find “monetary facts”? No. We merely need to invoke the emotional substrate of human trust and desire. “Laws” of economics are wholly dependent on this emotional substrate. “Laws” of behavior also have their substrate in human emotions. To suggest we need to invoke a “moral domain” to explain what this emotional substrate already explains is superfluous, unjustified, and unparsimonious. It is irrational.

We already have the explanation for both the degree of agreement, and the degree of disagreement on ethical questions across cultures; humans come from the same basic genetic stock, yet their emotional perspectives are influenced by culture.
The correlation between emotional dispositions on particular ethical questions and culture more than adequately explains the facts. The theist who now posits a supernatural objective morality on top of this clear natural explanation are like the car salesman claiming the engine you see under the hood is merely ornamental, and that the car they would like you to buy actually runs on wishes. We already have a natural explanation. Not only is there no need to accept a superfluous supernatural explanation, the supernatural explanation of an “objective morality” runs counter to the clear correlation between degree of disparity/convergence between ethical positions and cultural upbringing.

And let’s pursue this further. “Morality” implies obligation. Obligation implies judgment for violations of the obligation. Judgment for violations of the obligation implies a) that the one judged has full access to the obligation, or b) the judge of violations of any unrecognized obligation is unjust. Here is the more rigorous syllogistic form.

  • P1: For whomever an objective moral fact applies, there is objective moral obligation.
  • P2: For whomever there is objective moral obligation, there must punishment for any violation of that objective moral obligation.
  • P3: Punishment for any violation of objective moral obligation in which the violation is not recognized by the violator is unjust.
  • CONCLUSION 1: If an objective moral fact exists, and a just punisher of that objective moral fact exists, all subject to that objective moral fact must recognize that objective moral fact.
  • P4: There is not agreement on proposed objective moral facts among humans.
  • P5: There are therefore human violators of objective moral facts who do not recognize their violation for which they are necessarily punished.
  • CONCLUSION 2: If there are objective moral facts for humans, there is unjust punishment for those objective moral facts.

Note that, if moral facts were to depend on the degree of recognition of those moral facts by those bound by those moral facts, this morality would not be objective, but merely subjective.

J. Warner Wallace claims…

“The overarching nature of the moral law transcends the finite nature of humans; transcendent, objective moral laws require a Transcendent Moral Law Giver.”

We can know with full certainty that his “Transcendent Moral Law Giver” is either unjust or imaginary . Given the engine of emotions already seen under the hood, there is clearly no need to invoke transcendent wishes as the driving force behind ethical dispositions among humans. And any attempt to bloat our ontology with such unsubstantiated moral “facts” existing within an unsubstantiated moral domain is irrational at best, and dishonest at worst.

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4 thoughts on “Bloating ontology with “moral facts”

  1. Steven Clear says:

    Some thoughts on this conversation:

    “So, even if I accepted the idea that humans evolved over time and embraced certain moral principles beneficial to their survival, I’d still be looking for the transcendent source of these moral concepts. Transcendent, objective moral truths (like “It’s never OK to torture babies for the fun of it”) were true even before humans were able to comprehend or acknowledge them.”—J. W. Wallace

    In italics, Wallace is indicating how he would respond to your counter-argument. Whatever question you raise against objective morality, he will continue to carry your evidence back to support a Transcendent Moral Law Giver.

    “The introduction of objective morality is superfluous since emotions are sitting in plain view as an adequate explanation for the convergence/disparity among ethical positions we see in the world today.”—P. Stilwell

    I do find this conclusion satisfying given the argument originally presented by Wallace, though I am not sure that making the point that emotions are our guide for morality is sufficient to undermine his implied message.

    “The overarching nature of the moral law transcends the finite nature of humans; transcendent, objective moral laws require a Transcendent Moral Law Giver.”—J.W. Wallace

    In response to your conclusion, Wallace can simply step back and say that the Transcendent Moral Law Giver is actually a Transcendent Emotion Provider, thus are emotional states are derived from the objective morals established by the TEP.

    Basically, God provided us with empathy so that we would adhere to his objective morality and not torture babies for fun.

    It seems to me that the morality that exists today does so not because it was beneficial to our survival, but because it was necessary for our survival or we would not be here to talk about it. This is similar to the fine-tuned universe argument. The universe is finely tuned because if it were not, we would not be here. This still does not prove that the universe had a tuner.

    Because he admits that he would “still be looking for the transcendent source of these moral concepts” before concluding the transcendent, objective moral laws require a TMLG, he is begging the question.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Steven.

    It’s fine if he wants to back up to the much weaker argument that emotions were given by a transcendent moral law-giver. He is then forced to account for emotions in presumably non-moral animals, and he is then admitting moral laws are not self-evident, but must be consciously traced back to their foundational emotions.

    But my argument that the non-consensual moral judgments to moral questions exposes either an unjust or imaginary moral law-giver stands. You can’t have a just god condemning those subject to moral facts for violating moral “facts” they are confused or wrong about.

  3. Steven Clear says:

    That is a good point, no wonder ignorance is bliss.

  4. […] Response from P. Stilwell: Bloating ontology with “moral facts” […]

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