For Atheist Moral-Realists

A discussion on objectivity of morality and moral definitions on comment section of post here

A: “A sense of objective morality could easily be based on the fact that there are things which promote human well-being and other things which are harmful.” No, it can’t. First, this would not be objective morality, but merely an objective test to determine what we will consider moral. The fact remains that what we consider moral based on this objective test would still be subjective morality because the existence of such moral rules depends on the existence of humans. Second, this can’t be what constitutes morality because one has to first presume that whatever promotes human well-being is good. You are presuming morality to start with, and thus begging the question.

B: by “a sense of objective morality” I meant the attitude, or feeling, that morality is objective. I even pointed out that “it can’t be said that (human) morality would exist even if human beings didn’t”. Although you are right that basing morality of well-being would provide us with objective tests to determine what is moral. I fully accept that what we determine to be moral depends on humans (or any other creature capable of moral reasoning) existing.

As for your charge of begging the question, this is incorrect. I am starting from an assumption that our concepts of morality are based on what promotes human well being. There is nothing circular in identifying moral concepts with any natural property or collection of properties. There is still the open question argument to deal with but no circularity. On the other hand, your insistence that morality existed before humans is question begging.

A: I’m glad you have clarified what you mean by “objective,” but your definition is a distortion of the word. Objectivity has nothing to do with our attitudes or feelings. “The earth exists” is an objectively true statement regardless of how I feel about it. If morals are objective, then they must be objective in the same way. What you are doing is defining objective so as to mean subjective.

As for begging the question, if you define morality as “whatever causes human well-being,” then I have a follow-up question. Why is human well-being good? The mere intelligibility of the question demonstrates that “well being” is not equal to “moral.” They are two different concepts. While what is moral will produce well-being, well-being is not the essence of the good. And that’s why your moral system begs the question.

How am I begging the question to say that morals, if they are objective, existed prior to humans? That’s not begging the question. The only question is whether or not morals are objective. Given our moral intuitions, and given the abundance of problems associated with subjectivistic versions of morality, I think it is clear that morals are objective, and thus existed prior to humans.

B: I was not defining “objective”, I was defining “a sense of objective morality”, in other words, the fact that we think of morality as objective.

Your question “why is human well-being good?” is an example of the open question argument, not a demonstration of question begging. To answer it I would first have to convince you that moral sentences are intended to express beliefs (moral cognitivism) then convince you that the correct approach to moral epistemology is reflective equilibrium (which relies on producing consistency between moral intuitions and principles). If moral sentences express beliefs and testing what is entailed by the proposition “human well-being is good” (along with whatever modifications are necessary, additional rules, perhaps adding other properties which we might be referring to when we say something is good) produces reflective equilibrium then it is correct.
In terms of moral epistemology I have only given any serious thought to the debate between coherence theories and foundational theories (basically reflective equilibrium vs intuitionism), if there are other options I may have to abandon my support of reflective equilibrium and may even end up with a more Kantian approach to morality, however unlikely this seems to me at the moment!

The question begging part of your argument is based on your original assertion that “atheists cannot make sense of why there is such a thing as morality apart from the existence of God”. If this just refers to the fact that we have moral concepts then this is fine, but I have given a very rough outline of how an atheist actually can make sense of why we have these concepts, so it is incorrect. If you actually mean that atheists cannot make sense of why morality existed before humans then your argument seems to be.

1. Morality existed before humans
2. Atheists cannot explain why morality existed before humans
3. Therefore morality existed before humans.

If I have misinterpreted your line of reasoning then I apologise but any attempt to get an atheist to explain a morality that existed before humans is, at worst question begging and at best asking atheists to explain something that they don’t actually believe. It is as if I asked you “If there’s a God then why is there no God?” You believe that there is a God and so it makes no sense for me to ask you to explain why there is no God. I do believe that we treat morality as if it was objective but I do not believe that it is objective in the sense that it existed before we did. I do believe that, if morality is about well-being then moral beliefs can be true or false but this is only because there are right and wrong answers to what promotes well-being, not because morality existed before people did. Morality being subjective (meaning only non-objective, or that it did not exist before humans did) is not the same as morality being relative. This may be a problem for expressivists (or other forms of moral non-cognitivist) but not necessarily and not for cognitivists. The only reason I say not necessarily is because I find non-cognitivism implausible and, as such, have not done any work to show whether non-cognitivism leads to relativism or not.

A: Regarding your use of “objective,” I now see better the point you are trying to convey. You are trying to explain why people think morality is objective, even though it is subjective. Fair enough. The way I originally read your original statement (the one I initially responded to) it sounded like you were saying that human well-being makes morality objective.

I didn’t necessarily intend for you to explain why human well-being is good, but was merely pointing out that the very fact that such a question can be intelligibly asked shows that goodness and well-being are not synonymous terms. So “what is good” cannot be reduced to and is not synonymous with “whatever produces human well-being.” Since goodness is more basic than human well-being, human well-being cannot be the essence of what good is, and cannot define the good, and cannot ground the good (moral ontology). At best it can be a good principle for determining what is good (moral epistemology).

But since you answered the question, let’s review your answer. I agree that moral sentences express beliefs, but that alone tells us nothing about the objectivity or subjectivity of the propositions entailed by those moral sentences. Moral semantics and moral ontology are two different questions.

You go on to say that the “correct approach to moral epistemology is reflective equilibrium.” Whether I agree or not does not matter because from my perspective, this isn’t the right question to ask. The question of why some X is good is a question of moral ontology, not moral epistemology. I am asking what makes X good (ontology), not how do we know that X is good (epistemology). Of course you avoid the ontological issue because you are a moral non-realist. That also explains why you misread my words when I wrote “atheists cannot make sense of why there is such a thing as morality apart from the existence of God,” and why you think that your syllogism accurately depicts my argument. My whole post assumes that moral realism is true. I was talking about atheists’ inability to explain why moral truths exist, not why moral beliefs exist. The atheists I have in view, then, are not all atheists, but specifically atheists who espouse moral realism. Of course moral non-realists have theories about how humans came to have moral beliefs, but they presume that there are no moral truths to begin with.

At the end of the day, what you are talking about and what I am talking about in this post are two entirely different things. You, as a moral non-realist, were not my intended audience. My intended audience for this post is atheists who are moral realists. While they can know morality and act morally, they do not have a good explanation for why moral truths exist in the first place. Since you deny the existence of moral truths, my point does not apply to you. For you, I have to write a post critiquing moral non-realism and the relativism (that I am convinced) inevitably follows from that.

B: Yes, we are talking about two completely different things then! My intention throughout this was certainly not to suggest that all atheists can make sense of all possible theories of morality, merely to show that atheists can account for our concepts of morality. I’m glad that we agree on this!

It’s also worth pointing out that I reject the notion that there is a special meaning to the word “good” when used to mean “morally good”, I’m pretty much a straightforward Aristotelian in this sense.

I look forward to your post showing that moral non-realism necessarily leads to relativism. I certainly think you’ll have a great deal of success showing that non-cognitivism leads to relativism (although you’ll probably need to engage with Horgan and Timmons “Expressivism, Yes! Relativism, No!”). I also think you’ll have at the very least a degree of success with cognitive views, I haven’t yet looked at whether an Aristotelian approach can really be defended against a Nietzchean approach (in other words should I be a good person or just a good me?). Even an Aristotelian approach allows that if the circumstances in which we live were different or human beings became different then morality would end up being different, the question is how different or what degree of relativism this would allow. The only significant difficulty I think you’ll have is, assuming that you show that moral non-realism leads to relativism, how to show that an account of morality which leads to relativism is false. If anyone could do this without assuming that moral realism is true from the start it would be a significant result!


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