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There is no Morality

Entry 1592, on 2013-11-15 at 21:50:40 (Rating 4, Religion)

Yesterday I talked about the "weird stuff" which we see when looking at wave-particle duality. I got this topic from a discussion at the Quora web site and there were a few other similar subjects on the same page. So let's try another: where morality comes from.

This is an interesting one because many religious people claim we need a god to have morality. At least they claim this is a requirement for an "objective morality" which I interpret as being rules on how to behave properly which come from outside the species, or world, or universe those rules apply to.

The first point is that there is not a single rule of any kind which applies in every case. So if there is an absolute morality it consists of more complex rules than "thou shalt not kill", etc. Of course there are times when killing is the right thing to so, or at least a good argument could be made for that. For example, if a terrorist was about to blow up your friend and many other innocent people and you could kill him instead would you? Most people would. But the way people apply these rules makes no sense. See my blog entries which discuss the famous "Trolley Experiments" for details.

So even if there was a god he couldn't create a reasonable set of moral rules which would be practical to communicate to everyone. There are just too many reasonable exceptions to make this practical. Look at human laws. They are ridiculously complicated and no one really understands what they mean. How could any practical rules of any kind be any different no matter where they originated?

And there is one other point here too. If a god makes up rules how do we know they are moral? There are only three ways this could happen...

1. We have some built-in understanding of what is moral and what isn't so we can judge the rules as being truly moral. But if we have this why do we need the rules? Clearly we don't.

2. The fact that the rules are moral is dictated from something higher than god. Clearly this can't work because god is supposed to be the highest power, and even if there was something still higher the same argument applies to that.

3. The god tells us that his rules are moral. But again we get into a circular argument here. The rule that a god's rules are moral is itself a moral rule. How do we know that is moral? Again, clearly we don't because we end up with another circular argument.

So I think I have shown that absolute objective morality cannot logically exist. This means we get to two other models: one which is a set of rules invented by a church and the other a set of practical guidelines agreed on by all socially well-adjusted (yes, I know, hard to define) people and subject to modification as society changes. I know which I would rather follow!


Comment 1 (3704) by silenceofmind on 2013-11-16 at 17:09:59: (view recent only)

The morass of complication you present here argues for the simplicity of God-given ethics. “Thou shalt not murder,” is simple.

If everyone followed this simple commandment there would be world peace. Man makes things complicated, not God.


Comment 2 (3705) by OJB on 2013-11-16 at 17:10:15:

Yeah, "thou shalt not kill" (closer to the original meaning, I think) is simple but is it too simple? Does it cover the many possible situations where killing is involved? I don't think so.

Also remember that rules against killing are not a unique attribute of Christianity. There are many sources pre-dating the Old Testament/Torah which indicates that God is an unnecessary element in those rules.


Comment 3 (3708) by Richard on 2013-11-21 at 19:16:23:

Will be as short as possible! Again - not easy to do & still give this justice sorry folks.

1 - Religious people don't claim 'we need a God to have morality', because that is clearly not necessary. Maybe some do because they haven't thought it thru. As you said any group (whether socially well adjusted or not in fact) can define any 'rules' they like and define them as 'moral', without requiring God. That is a no brainer.

Lets get the definitions right first! The above is called 'Relative' (or 'Subjective') morality, because the morality (the rightness) of the rule is completely 'relative' to the 'subjects' (those defining the rules).

The claim religious people DO hold is you need God for 'Absolute' morality. That is where the rule is NOT 'subjective', but we recognize intuitively (i.e. yes we are 'built that way') that the rightness actually applies to the RULE itself (the 'object' of the claim) - without regard for the subjects involved. This is why the two are often also termed objective morality and subjective morality, which I think are more helpful terms to negotiate this question.

Rape or torturing babies, is intuitively recognized by ALL (but the pathologically insane) as 'wrong'. If those were subjectively moral qualities (defined by merely groups) then there is no sound basis to claim they are 'really really wrong', because who is to say our particular group is right? That ALL human groups have 'decided' (no matter the reason you can come up with) that rape is wrong, isn't even the relevant question that needs answering (or determines absoluteness) - the question that needs an answer is 'what does 'wrong' really mean in this relative context, and why 'on earth' should anyone really REALLY care if individuals choose to ignore that?

2 - Your added complexity around 'rules that don't apply in every case', is a distraction stemming from a mis-understanding of the above definition of absolute morality. To explain - That there are a myriad of 'circumstances' that translate to a myriad of possible ways to apply 'absolute morality' does not change the 'absoluteness' of the morality at all. While some moral laws are more indeed more complex to 'apply' in different circumstances, (like your example of Killing, or Lying), the simple and straight forward principle as offered by 'silenceofmind' was that 'Thou shall not murder' is an 'absolute moral law'. The way I find helpful to think about these is to add 'just for fun' after the rule. For example 'Killing just for fun' is Murder. If the complex circumstances justify 'killing', very clearly it is NOT immoral, as in the terrorist example you gave. Same with lying and all other moral 'absolutes'.

4 - The key to the absolute morality definition however, is not impacted by those complexities, because what happens is, in 'ABSOLUTELY' EVERY case where the SAME set of complex circumstances occurs, regardless of the subjects (the culture or group), we by intuition tend to understand that there is a 'most correct' course of action(s) that results in the 'BEST morality' (or put another way, the LEAST level of immorality). That still is just as true even we cannot all agree on what the best course of action is - which happens all the time.

Thus that's not a problem in the slightest to the question of the 'absoluteness' of the moral laws we see as a true and REAL feature of reality. Most honest philosophers understand that this is very hard to explain without a 'higher' (external to ALL groups) 'authority' to ground the absolute morals we all recognise in the world.

Finally, your last statement in Comment 2, makes mistake in logic when you say that rules about killing are not unique to Christianity, & then then use 'predating the Old Testament/Torah' etc to suggest that God is an unnecessary element in those rules. No - sorry - all this shows is that the Old Testament/Torah are not the 'essential elements' in those rules. You are welcome to try to claim that God is not necessary for morality, but you cannot use that argument to do it, because clearly the 'claim is' that God (and His moral nature) existed before humans, and the Old Testament/Torah or any other documents that humans used to simply document features of the world they experience.

Cheers, Rich.


Comment 4 (3710) by OJB on 2013-11-21 at 20:52:55:

1. Well in fact the claim that god is needed for morality is a very common one. Google it and you get 218 million results, including an article on the "Argument from Morality" at Wikipedia (where you will find a mention of some really silly nonsense form people like C. S. Lewis).

Yes, OK, I understand the claimed difference between objective and subjective morality. Of course the distinction can only be claimed if god exists, and as I have said before, I don't think it even applies then. In fact some groups have justified rape and torture of babies, especially on political or religious grounds. I would suggest the recent atrocities in the Congo as an example.

2. So a moral rule is absolute but there are many cases where it doesn't apply. That doesn't sound very absolute to me then!

3. What happened to 3?

4. I disagree. There are wide variations on what is considered moral and immoral in different cultures. Look at treatment of women, attitudes to slavery, etc. These vary from one culture to another and even over time in the same culture.

Most honest philsoophers think it's hard to explain morality without a god, eh? Well what an interesting claim. I'd love to see your evidence. Or does the word "honest" here just mean someone who agrees with your fairy stories?

I do agree that a god could create a morality which pre-dates the Bible. Just saying that if those rules already existed why put them in the BIble at all? Maybe the Christians and Jews have it wrong. Maybe another god is the true source of morality.


Comment 5 (3712) by OJB on 2013-11-21 at 21:08:03:

And one other thing. You haven't really responded to the key point of the blog entry: that, even if a god did exist, that moral rules imposed by him being an objective or true reality cannot be justified except through invalid approaches like circular arguments.


Comment 6 (3713) by Rich on 2013-11-22 at 00:24:59:

Thanks Owen.
1: I think it's fair to acknowledge that the vast majority of the 28M hits I get when I google 'God and Morality' (what are you searching for to get 218M?) are using the term 'morality' as a synonym for 'objective/absolute morality', which is perfectly reasonable, given that we have already agreed that 'relative' morality has no difficulty as a naturalistic proposition. So clearly when God gets involved in the discussion, the morality being discussed/claimed is implicitly the absolute variety.

We must remember that absolute morality is a philosophical proposition. To say there is none of it, you have to explicitly deny that there is even the slightest notion that we can find even a single 'rule' that we suspect can be acknowledged be 'universal'. To deny that, quickly becomes very difficult.

2: I disagree, and again think you are misinterpreting 'absolute' when you put it like that. I was trying to point out that we still use 'absolute' morality, to perform the assessment about how to behave in those complex situations where where full compliance is impossible.

3: I decided that I don't have to use a 3 - Are you gonna try and tell me that's wrong huh?! (Whoops - I bet that argument I must have accidentally deleted was just brilliant too)! LOL

4 - Again - I don't deny that, as I acknowledged it in the point, but it doesn't matter. As above, you must say that there are NO rules ever where we don't sense a moral absolute exists to make your claim. Any sense of absoluteness fulfills my claim. That even quite wide variation occurs in some given examples doesn't harm my claim at all.

Most honest philosophers... sorry - I wasn't intending to mean it in the way you suggested. We aren't discussing whether God exists or not in this post, so wasn't making that plug. We are discussing morality, and I stand by the claim that most philosophers understand the 'Grounding Problem'. The phrase 'Grounding Problem Morality' got 157M hits.

The simple answer to why put them in the bible at all, is the same reason Governments document laws, because although we do (in the vast majority of cases) have the capacity to 'sense' when we are acting outside those moral rules (our conscience) we very often choose to ignore it. Like Civil statutes, the written version is simply for our benefit, as the standard to be measured against, when we try to convince ourselves that our immorality is justified.

As for who got it wrong, sure - that question has to be answered, but like your original disdain for rules made by 'the church', it's a bit of a red herring. A fair look would find that those simple 10 rules (ok 9) account for the vast majority of what you would expect your socially well adjusted group to affirm.

It's late, so I'll address the circular arguments (comment 5) soon. Cheers.


Comment 7 (3714) by OJB on 2013-11-22 at 15:17:42:

1. Well no, my point is that a god-imposed morality is really no more absolute than any other. That was the point of the blog post which you seem to have ignored. Should I go over the argument again?

2. Maybe the problem is what "absolute" means in this case. Clearly we have slightly different interpretations of the word.

4. Well I disagree that absolute morality shows that a god is involved, but if it did it would support my point because there are no moral absolutes beyond the basic things we would expect as a result of social evolution.

I await your comments on my final point which was the whole point of the blog entry anyway!


Comment 8 (3738) by Richard on 2013-11-29 at 01:25:12:

Sorry for the delay, and apparently ignoring the whole point of your post. Will try to rectify this now, though I think the previous comments were a useful discussion too. I suspect you are right about a large part of the problem being our different idea of the definition of the term 'absolute', in this case.

My understanding of your argument against ‘absolute’ morality (relying on the notion of ‘circular arguments’) requires a chosen definition of ‘absolute’ morality to mean the 'absolutely absolute' - i.e. to the very ‘last’, 'final' or 'highest of the (how many?) higher authorities’ that might choose to impose moral rules. The ‘God of Gods’ etc. i.e. How does God know what’s moral?

That (arbitrarily) chosen definition of ‘absolute’ does indeed lend itself to the kind of circular questions you pose. It must be pointed out too, that this is actually very similar to the circular questions sometime posed in the face of the Cosmological argument for Gods existence. Circular questions like ‘If God created the Universe’, then who created God? And who created the God that created God etc etc?

The cosmological argument for the existence of God, claims that the Universe has a ‘God-like’ cause because it had a beginning, and it is our ‘universal’ experience to date that everything that has a beginning, MUST have had a cause sufficiently ‘powerful’ to account for the result. Key phrase is ‘had a beginning’. Quite simply although it is indeed hard to grasp (and believe!) there is absolutely no logical contradiction at all with a proposition that God IS eternal, so had no beginning. Thus God simply does not require to be ‘created’. Obviously that alone doesn’t provide any real proof for God in the slightest, but there is simply no essential ‘logic’ requiring a circular God to be ‘created’ by a God who must be created by a god etc etc.

The very same applies to this circular argument you pose about ‘absolutely absolute morality’. My alternative perfectly reasonable definition of ‘absolute’, is as described in my first Comment #3. That is simply that the rule is not deemed moral by the subjects, but the rule (as perceived by the subjects) is ‘objectively’ moral – that is, the ‘morality’ or ‘perceived goodness’ (as opposed to ‘perceived evil’) of the rule is a fundamental ‘property’ of the rule (object) itself, such that it is recognized to apply regardless of ALL the POSSIBLE RELEVANT subjects.

That’s the important key – ALL possible relevant subjects means ALL humans (but ONLY all humans) – as they are the ONLY relevant subjects we ‘know’ about, that have the ability to contemplate moral value, i.e. for the purposes of this particular question.

Thus, as soon as ONE SINGLE ‘higher authority’ exists (with respect to ALL humans), then that is ALL the ‘absoluteness’ that is required to completely fulfill the definition of ‘objective’ (or absolute) morality – at least the kind that we intuitively experience every day. Your other definition isn’t a logical necessity, it’s simply another (clever) straw man.

The other point you add is: ‘If a god makes up the rules, how do we know they are moral’. Very similar straw man - which might sound compelling question at first, but this question only has any basis if there is any justifiable reason to suggest that God could have come up with ‘immoral’ rules, such that they need testing, either by us (Option 1), or by a higher power (option 2), or that God has to ‘tell us’ us they are moral (Option 3).

IF (as claimed) it is simply a part of the intrinsic moral nature of God, that he can ONLY produce rules that ARE in fact truly moral – then this whole line of questioning / testing simply goes away.

I know this answer will probably not be satisfying to you Owen, but sorry, whether you like it or not, there is simply not a logical ‘necessity’ that says that it MUST be true that God ‘might’ come up with immoral rules requiring the external tests you demand an explanation for.

So – as far as ALL HUMANS are concerned, only a single ‘external’ authority is a logical necessity, to justify any recognition that just 1 or more particular moral rules just might in fact hold true for everbody, no matter how much some might deny it. It's what 'international law', and things like the Geneva Convention are all predicated on.



Comment 9 (3740) by OJB on 2013-11-29 at 09:35:18:

You seem to be moving on to an argument about the origin of the universe so let me briefly comment on that. Many cosmologists think that the Big Bang was not the real beginning of the universe but just the start of a local part of it. The idea that there is a metaverse which is probably infinite in time and space is becoming more accepted. And there are possible ways to test this idea which are being worked on now.

Another factor to consider is that time and space were created in the Big Bang so asking what happened before that makes no sense. The counter to this is that some physical "laws" must have existed in order for time and space to be created.

The point is that if you require some eternal structure, physical law, quantum field, whatever there is no problem with that in science. There is absolutely no need at all to invoke the supernatural. By Occam's Razor we should use the explanations involving the least wild speculation and the least change to existing understanding. That would be a purely naturalistic explanation.

So on to your arguments involving absolute morality. Your definition is that absolute morality is objective morality. So you substitute one poorly defined work for another. A property of the rule is that it is true. That itself is a moral rule, where does that come from? See, you cannot escape this trap!

You don't think other species can contemplate moral value? Maybe you should look at some of the research done on other "higher" species.

If one single higher authority exists that is all that is needed to establish absolute morality? How do we know that even if that entity existed that it was moral? Because it said so? A circular argument again maybe?

So you say that god's rules are moral because a definition of god is that he can only create moral rules. You're just playing with words. Accept it: just like everything else, nothing is absolute. We can never be completely sure and therefore absolute morality cannot exist.

International laws and the Geneva Convention are arbitrary rules designed to try to place some controls on extreme human behaviour. They are often ignored and manipulated by various groups. Just like all rules and laws, there is nothing absolute there.


Comment 10 (3743) by richard on 2013-11-30 at 12:10:24:

I wasn't meaning to distract by moving onto a cosmological argument. I was just using that as a parallel example to describe the similar issue to that in this post, which is that you have used an arbitrary definition of 'absolute' morality simply for its usefulness in producing a circular argument, but that definition has no more 'necessity' in the real world than mine, which solves the problem. In response you have simply repeated the same question and re-asserted your alternative definition. This is precisely why I predicted my response wouldn't satisfy you.

To accept that there are no absolutes (wrt morality specifically), you must accept a reality that says ANY chosen behaviour I pick, has no observed moral properties. Rape and torture of babies for example, literally has no 'objective' moral quality, and while we declare may not like it, is is not objectively 'wrong'. This is quite simply a denial of reality. I don't know of any countries that endorse rape, despite it being a behaviour you could expect to be actively encouraged from a naturalistic evolutionary point of view where getting your genes into the next generation is the ultimate goal.

As for your last comment, that's a mistake in logic. The absoluteness of the morality of 'rule' is not affected in the slightest, simply by choices made by various groups to ignore it. On the contrary, it's that fact that nearly all nations recognize (and legislate /endorse) the same rules is an indication of the underlying absoluteness.

Of course - you are correct though, and being 'abolutely' (LOL) consistent with your world view, when you claim that absolute or objective morality (of any definition) cannot exist - IF molecules are all there is in the universe.


Comment 11 (3745) by OJB on 2013-11-30 at 14:37:04:

Yes, I saw why you introduced the cosmological argument, and I was showing that both are examples of arguments which can easily be countered.

OK, just to make it clear. I think there is morality which is derived from social evolutionary processes. For example, it is counter-productive for a social species like ours to abuse children so that is a common moral law (don't abuse them). However there is no need for a higher power for such laws to exist.

As I keep saying: even if there is a god there still can be no absolute morality because how do we know that god represents what is morally good? He could be an evil god trying to deceive us, for example.


Comment 12 (3747) by Richard on 2013-11-30 at 19:15:38:

With respect, you (attempted to) counter the cosmological argument itself, with what actually sounds very much like 'science of the gaps' to be honest, rather than concentrate on the point I raised which was your circular argument used to reject 'absolute' morality being a straw man. On that score, you have simply repeated your original claim, (Quote: 'as you keep saying') with no new reasons for us to accept that claim.

Thanks for the clarity re social evolutionary process producing a morality. I believe I do understand that concept, and even agree with you that a general principle of social evolution that encourages 'human flourishing' sounds very 'plausible', and I even agree entirely that any and all non-absolute laws do not need a higher power to exist. They are merely a social contract. I thought the point under discussion here though is not whether the laws exist at all, as clearly they do, it is whether they actually do have any absolute moral quality. Clearly under that evolutionary scenario, they do not. Hence your post.

This notion of evolutionary morality however, has serious flaws in a purely physical universe, when trying to match it up with observable reality.

Firstly, you stated that it is 'counter productive' for a social species to abuse children (or pick any law). What does 'counter productive' actually mean' - here I assume you mean human flourishing - getting the genes into the next generation is the ONLY plausible motivation in an evolutionary model - there can be no other.

Flaw 1 - what gives human flourishing (or any flourishing) any moral quality over human disappearing? The physical universe doesn't 'care' either way - actually it doesn't have the capability to care at all. Why should any particular individual within a social species really care whether there is another generation or not. Richard Dawkins rightly labelled genes 'blind' and 'selfish' genes - they don't have moral qualities, or an ability to 'make plans to flourish', they just are either passed on or they are not.

The main question around morality is not so much even that there are laws - it's why do we have the ability to CHOOSE whether to obey them or not? Even IF our genes have somehow hard-wired us to have a 'moral compass' because it provides an evolutionary advantage - it seems far more likely that they would have hard wired us simply not to have the freedom to disobey (or even comprehend) the 'counter-productive' laws in the first place. That's has far better survival advantage. Yet we have inexplicably moved above that to a point where we can choose to be selfish individuals rather than promote flourishing. In that scenario the real question is without an absolute morality to guide us - there is no genuine (absolute) reason to act in favour of flourishing.

In fact, the whole notion of morality, (absolute or not) in a purely physical universe is illogical. This is because by definition, a purely physical universe is a completely 'determined' one. Morality is only possible where free will exists to choose to disobey a moral 'law'. Free will in a purely physical universe is about as logical as a chemical reaction 'choosing' whether to occur or not.

Flaw 2 - In such a scenario, then you have to answer for what appear to be pretty absolute (wrt to our social species) morals that appear NOT to encourage human flourishing like rape. Why is rape (for example) not accepted for what it actually provides - a more effective way to successfully pass on our genes?


Comment 13 (3748) by OJB on 2013-11-30 at 20:58:00:

OK, this is getting complicated. Can I try to simplify this debate a bit?

We agree that morality can come from social evolution if it is non-absolute. So we need to figure out what the term "absolute morality" actually means and then decide if it exists. If it exists then you have a strong case for a higher power. If it doesn't then evolution is probably a better explanation.

So can you please tell me, in a sentence or two, what "absolute morality" or "objective reality" or whatever else you want to call it, actually is.


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