Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Part 7: Morality Explained

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
- Voltaire

So there I was the other day buying a Slurpee when the cashier asked me for a buck-sixty-nine.  Just as I reached into my pocket for some loose change, the most incredible thing happened: I paid him and got on with my life.  It’s strange, I know, because the more “natural” course of action is to immediately jump over the counter, gouge out his eyeballs, rape his corpse, and then set the store on fire.  Why, it’s almost as if some ethereal cosmic spirit was telepathically commanding me to be nice to people.  At least, that’s what Christians would have you believe, since apparently they can't think of any other viable explanations for why I should refrain from lashing out in a violent rage against total strangers.

Which brings us to the moral argument for the existence of God.  And while there are of course dozens of variations floating around, they all generally share the same basic structure [1]: 
  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.
This argument is wildly popular among religious apologetics, and was even one of the personal favorites of C. S. Lewis.  But what really makes this argument truly special is how utterly depraved and incoherent it is at every last step.  Even the wording itself gives away its own amateurish origins, with the very first premise being written as an obtuse contrapositive [2].  Yet for all of its obvious failures, arguments like this are very powerful at insulating believers against all reason and evidence to the contrary.  Religions work very hard to intertwine themselves with the perception of absolute moral authority, such that giving up one's faith is often seen as the equivalent of giving up all sense of human decency at the same time.  Why else would believers consistently view atheists as the least trustworthy minority group in all of America [3]?  It's another deliberate psychological ploy designed to manipulate the believers into remaining believers, and not necessarily to build a viable case for God's existence.

But what is morality, really?  Because for all this talk about morals and values, it's surprisingly rare for anyone to actually break them down into rigorous, coherent terms.  So let's begin with the simple observation that the core of all morality is implicitly defined by choice.  That's why we only tend to punish people for things they consciously decide to do or not do, and never for things that just happen.  But it's also equally important to realize that choice itself has no practical meaning unless one is trying to actualize some desirable outcome.  "Good" and "right" choices are those which can reliably produce a specified result, while "bad" and "wrong" choices ultimately fail in that goal.

So which goals are specifically "moral" in nature and which ones are not?  This is another one of those sticky philosophical issues that sparks all kinds of academic debate to this day.  Yet despite all the contention, most people do tend to agree that any coherent concept of seemingly "moral" behavior must revolve around some kind of ultimate, social interaction.  Morally "good" choices tend to manifest through desirable, pro-social consequences while morally "evil" choices are those which tend to do the opposite.  But no matter what the specifics may be, it's important to always bear in mind that the whole notion of morality itself is utterly meaningless and irrelevant without some form of consequentialism at its foundation.

Strangely enough, however, most Christian philosophers actually reject this principle outright, claiming instead that morality is an objective feature of the universe itself, like the law of gravity or the charge of an electron; that even if the entire human race went extinct today, then certain laws of morality would still be absolutely true and universally binding on all sentient beings across the cosmos.  It's another one of those tempting philosophical views called moral realism, and while it may appeal to certain naive intuitions, it utterly fails before it even begins.  Because to say that anything is morally "good" or "evil," in and of itself, without any reference to goals or consequences, is just incoherent gibberish.

For example, just stop ask yourself: what on Earth is an objective moral value supposed to look like?  Like if some guy were to say to you that, "human life has objective value," or that "human life is objectively good," what does that even mean?  Is "goodness" supposed to be some kind of radiant intensity that just emanates from human beings, simply by the mere virtue of living?  Can we quantify this goodness and measure it with moral thermometers?   If so, then what's the standard of calibration?  Does a cow's life possess objective moral value, as well?  Or a squirrel's?  How many squirrels does it take to equal the moral value of one human?  How the hell are we supposed to empirically verify any of this in any functional capacity?

Obviously, we can't.  Because any time we say a thing has value or that a thing is good, we're not talking about some intrinsic physical quality of the thing itself.  Technically, what we're really saying is that somewhere, somehow, a subjective agent has arbitrarily decided to place value on that thing in the form of a preferential desire with respect to other things.  That's why absolutely nothing in the entire universe can possibly have objective moral value because the very idea itself is an oxymoron!  It's like trying to ask what the "objective value" is for a dollar - there isn't any!  Value does not exist without some value-er to do the value-ing.   So to say that human life has value simply means that, if given a choice, subjective agents will tend to behave in such a way as to promote and preserve human well-being over the alternatives.

What about the claim that there exist such things as objective moral duties?  That is to say, things we "ought" to do and things we "ought not" do.  Well, again, to say that anyone ought to do anything is to say that there exists some desirable state of affairs that can be conditionally actualized through specific actions.  For example, if we desire to raise our children into happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults, then it necessarily follows that we probably ought not torture them in their infancy.  However, if we have no interest whatsoever in promoting the health, happiness, or emotional well-being of children, then there really is no good reason for us to refrain from torturing babies, now, is there?

Notice how there's nothing conceivably objective about any of this, except for the fact that actions have consequences and that people tend to find certain social outcomes more desirable than others.  Yet in the view of Christian apologetics, all moral oughts are universally unconditional.  It's a vapid, worthless tautology wherein baby torture is simply deemed, as fact, to be "evil" for no other reason than pure, cosmic fiat.  But then the only reason why we "ought not" torture babies in the first place is purely because it's "evil" - as if the mere virtue of some arbitrary four-letter label is supposed to illicit immediate and unconditional compliance from our behavior.

So once again, we have Christian apologists pushing yet another argument that was already bungled beyond all meaningful comprehension long before it ever even began.  But let's suppose we're again feeling generous and decide to immediately grant the entire moral realist philosophy without contention.  Can someone please now tell me in what logical universe does any of this imply anything that even remotely resembles the singular deity of classical monotheism?  The very first premise of this argument might just as well have said that if apples don't grow on trees, then the moon is an onion.  There's simply no logical connection between these two statements.  Yet when we listen to Christian apologists, it apparently just goes without saying that the only viable source for objective morality is the express dictate of a powerful supernatural agent.  It's an absurdly authoritarian view known as divine command theory, wherein the ultimate measure of all good and evil in the entire universe is derived solely from the abject say-so of an invisible pan-galactic sky fairy.  Literally, objective moral values and duties defined entirely by the whims and properties of a subjective agent!

So not only is the moral argument for God's existence completely incoherent and self-defeating from the very start, but also blatantly circular.  After all, let's not forget that the whole point of the moral argument in the first place is to prove God's existence.  Except you can't do that when morality itself has already been predefined by the implied assumption of God's existence!  It's like trying to argue that Elvis' car proves the existence of Elvis.  The very phrase "Elvis' car" has no objective meaning until after we've established the existence of Elvis; not before [4].  It's another textbook example of classic logical question begging, and again, self-proclaimed “experts” in philosophy continually fail to recognize it to this very day.

But even ignoring all of that, the one thing that makes this argument such a truly spectacular failure is the fact that Christians are specifically trying to prove the existence of Yahweh, the God of the Bible - the very same god that has openly and proudly endorsed some of the most unspeakable moral atrocities we can possibly imagine.  We’re talking about a God that actively encourages:
  1. Slavery (Exodus 21:20-21, Colossians 3:22, Ephesians 6:5)
  2. Blood sacrifice (Genesis 8:20)
  3. Human sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-18, Exodus 32:27)
  4. Misogyny (Genesis 3:16, Exodus 21:7-8, Corinthians 11:8-9)
  5. Genital Mutilation (Genesis 17:10-14, 1 Samuel 18:27)
  6. Genocide (Genesis 6-9, Numbers 21:3, Numbers 21:33-35, Deuteronomy 2:33-34, Joshua 6:21-27, Joshua 10)
  7. Infanticide (1 Samuel 15:3, Exodus 11-12)
  8. Thought crimes (Matthew 5:27-28)
  9. Rape (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
  10. and death penalties for trivial offences! (Exodus 35:2, Numbers, 15:32-36, 2 Samuel 6:6-7, 1 Kings 13:15-24, 2 kings 2:23)
The very idea that the Biblical God is supposed to serve as the ultimate standard of moral goodness is patently ludicrous.  It practically gives a free-license to engage in the most destructive, antisocial behaviors in human history.  Or is it really just a coincidence that slave-holding Christians from the American South would habitually appeal to the Bible itself as moral justification for the practice? [5,6,7]

But who knows?  Maybe the Christians are right.  So let's again be generous and immediately grant the entire moral argument without contention.  Now what?  What changes?  Because if God really is the source of all human morality, then how exactly are we supposed verify any specific moral claim?  After all, it's not as if God has ever come out and actually told anyone that torturing babies is bad, so how do Christians even pretend to know that this is true in the first place?  For all we know, maybe God absolutely loves it when people torture babies, and we're all dangerously behind on our quotas.  It's perfectly consistent with all of His other atrocities littered throughout the Bible, so what objective empirical evidence can anyone possibly hope to offer that would indicate otherwise on God's behalf?

Or heck, even if God really did come out and issue us direct verbal commands, so what?  What objectively binding incentive do I have to comply with such a standard and not some other standard of my own choosing?  What's to stop me from simply telling God Himself to "eat shit and die," while I go out and torture babies anyway?  Because even if the Biblical God indeed turned out to be real, the only physical effect he could possibly have on any of my choices is to artificially skew their costs and payoffs after the fact.  What other purpose do heaven and hell possibly serve, except as a glorified carrot and stick? - Literally, rewards and punishments designed to influence my choices now by skewing their implied consequences later.  The very core of nearly all monotheistic doctrine is an open admission that consequentialism really is the ultimate driver of all human moral behavior.  And not just pro-social, altruistic consequences, either, but brutal, unfettered self-interest.

Interestingly enough, that's exactly the same assumption used by behavioral scientists when formulating a naturalistic theory of moral behavior in biological organisms.  Because it's a demonstrable fact that self-interest, when coupled with social interdependence, can, and does, give rise to virtually every form of apparently "nice" behavior observed in nature.  Life is not always a zero-sum game, where individual success can only be achieved at the expense of another.  Rather, cooperation among organisms very often has a tangibly positive impact on all parties involved, thereby increasing individual well-being and eventual reproductive success.  Virtue really can be its own reward.

This is not just some passing philosophical assertion, either, but a rich scientific field complete with its own empirical data and quantifiable mathematical framework [8,9].  Biologists, anthropologists, and economists all independently figured this stuff out decades ago and have long-since converged on a perfectly viable, pragmatic theory of biological cooperation.  Morality is not some magical essence of human decision-making, but simply an emergent property of interdependent social dynamics.  So to try and explain human morality through the God of the Bible is exactly like trying to invoke Thor, the God of Thunder, to explain the weather.  It's a God-of-the-Gaps argument that doesn't even have any gaps!

It's ironic that Christians have such a hard time with this kind of natural morality when you realize that the vast majority of American Christians are also gung-ho, laissez-faire capitalists - an economic system, mind you, grounded on the principle assumption that all human beings are fundamentally self-interested!  The very essence of a free-market economy is the fact that self-interested individuals have perfectly rational incentives to cooperate and specialize for the betterment of the entire social structure.  It’s a spectacular feat of doublethink where Christians simultaneously embrace and reject the exact same principle for no other reason than religious context.

It's important to understand that biology simply doesn't give a damn about naive labels like "good" and "evil."  Whatever behaviors your parents and grandparents statistically chose to engage in, those same behaviors must have facilitated their ultimate survival and reproduction - because if they didn't, then by definition, you wouldn't be here to think about it.  Likewise, your own actions must inevitably serve that very same goal, or else, by definition, you won't have any children or grandchildren to think about it, either.  So if our collective behaviors happen to include a general propensity for being nice to each other and getting along, then those too must, in some way or another, serve to improve our statistical reproductive success. Natural selection simply cannot have it any other way.

Notice how nothing about this principle requires the emergence of some homogenized moral perfection, but instead predicts exactly what we observe in human cultural groups today - a huge variety of nuanced, moral frameworks, each adapting individually to their respective cultural niches and continually diversifying with respect to geography and time.  Yet for all of our variation in cultural norms and values, it's easy to see how certain universal principles might still apply to all groups at all times.  For example, under no conceivable circumstances will eating babies ever promote the long-term survival and reproduction of any cultural group.  It has nothing to do with some mystical, transcendent essence of the cosmos, but the simple fact that any group which behaves in this way must inevitably go extinct.

This is why we get to call the fascist Nazis "bad" and peaceful egalitarians "good."  Because if our desire is to live in a happy, safe, productive society (which most of us generally do), then it is an objective fact that violently antagonizing our neighbors is counterproductive to that goal.  However, if we have no desire whatsoever to form peaceful, cooperative, and mutually beneficial relationships with those around us, then there really is no good reason to refrain from rampant genocidal aggression, is there?  Just don't act surprised when vast, national-scale resources that could have been spent improving infrastructure and funding innovations must instead be spent fighting off people who want to annihilate our culture.  

Remember that the moral argument for the existence of God is supposed to be another one of those sophisticated go-to arguments, grounded in rock-solid logic, and refined over centuries of academic exchange.  Yet the whole thing is so hopelessly bungled at every conceivable step that I can only describe it as pathologically deranged.  It again offers no empirical predictions, it makes baseless assertions, it uses incoherent terminology, it argues in a circle,  it contradicts itself internally, it gives no reason to care even if it turns out to be true, it implicitly utilizes the very philosophical principles it seeks to reject, it argues for a moral standard that happily permits slavery and genocide, and it attempts to magically explain a natural phenomenon that is already well-understood by science.  The only conceivable reason this monstrosity even exists in the first place is because it serves as an excellent tool for overt psychological manipulation.  In order to get otherwise decent, kind-hearted people to commit violent atrocities against their fellow human beings, it generally helps to have a good way of satisfying their conscience.  And what better way to do that then to convince them that the ultimate standard of all moral virtue itself wholeheartedly endorses their actions, and will even reward them infinitely for their obedience?

  1. William Lane Craig's formulation for the moral argument (link).
  2. Premise 1 has the form, If not-Q, then not-P, which is called a "contrapositive."  This form is needlessly obtuse because it introduces two unnecessary negations.  A more efficient expression is simply, If P then Q.  Premise 1 should therefore read as: if objective moral values and duties exist, then God exists.
  3. Gervais, W. M. and Shariff, A. F., and Norenzayan, A., "Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-Atheist Prejudice," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 101, No. 6 (2011)
  4. Let morality = "God's standard of good and evil."  Then premise 2 becomes "God's standard of good and evil exists."  This statement has no meaning without first establishing that God exists.  Saying that God's standard exists is implicitly stating that God exists as well, which is what we're trying to prove in the first place.
  5. With regard to the assertion that slavery is against the spirit of Christianity, we are ready to admit the general assertion, but deny most positively that there is anything in the Old or New Testament which would go to show that slavery, when once introduced, ought at all events to be abrogated, or that the master commits any offense in holding slaves. The children of Israel themselves were slaveholders and were not condemned for it. All the patriarchs themselves were slaveholders; Abraham had more than three hundred, Isaac had a "great store" of them; and even the patient and meek Job himself had "a very great household." When the children of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, they made one whole tribe "hewers of wood and drawers of water," and they were at that very time under the special guidance of Jehovah; they were permitted expressly to purchase slaves of the heathen and keep them as an inheritance for their posterity; and even the children of Israel might be enslaved for six years. - Thomas Dew (1852)
  6. If domestic slavery had been deemed by Jesus Christ the atrocious crime which it is now represented to be, could it have been passed over without censure? Would the doctrines of salvation have been illustrated by a reference to it, direct and unequivocal?—should we not have been told, not that the rich man, but that the slave-holders, could not enter the kingdom of heaven? - National Intelligencer (3 December, 1819)
  7. I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes - a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, — a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds, — and a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.  Were I again to be reduced to the condition of a slave, next to that calamity, I should regard the fact of being the slave of a religious slaveholder, the greatest that could befall me. - Frederick Douglass
  8. Ridley, M., The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation (1998)
  9. Axelrod, R., The Evolution of Cooperation (1984)


YF said...

Nicely done and cogently argued. Please keep up the excellent work!

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Let morality = "God's standard of good and evil." Then premise 2 becomes "God's standard of good and evil exists." This statement has no meaning without first establishing that God exists. Saying that God's standard exists is implicitly stating that God exists as well, which is what we're trying to prove in the first place.

Proving his existence may be done by proving existence of his standards. Which is done by observing that our standards are unceasingly claiming to be His.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

But what is morality, really? Because for all this talk about morals and values, it's surprisingly rare for anyone to actually break them down into rigorous, coherent terms. So let's begin with the simple observation that the core of all morality is implicitly defined by choice. That's why we only tend to punish people for things they consciously decide to do or not do, and never for things that just happen. But it's also equally important to realize that choice itself has no practical meaning unless one is trying to actualize some desirable outcome. "Good" and "right" choices are those which can reliably produce a specified result, while "bad" and "wrong" choices ultimately fail in that goal.

Well, no.

A choice that is "right" or "good" in getting a result may not be morally right or good.

Chosing the right poison for committing a murder without getting detected is in such a manner a pragmatically "right" or "good" (because efficient) choice, but still a morally wrong or bad one.

Your claim of defining the terms has resulted in your smuggling in a misdefinition.