Monday, November 28, 2011

On Objective Moral Values

Prostitute sleeping on a Bangkok street,
early in the morning

One of my MCCC philosophy students is writing a paper for another class. It's on the existence of God and objective moral values. He's asked me to respond to these questions. Here they are, plus my responses.

Here are a few questions for you to answer:

1. How can we know objective moral values exist?

First, I'll define "objective moral value." (OMV)

By "objective moral values" we mean: moral values and duties that are obligatory for all persons, whether they know it or not. For example: It's wrong to boil babies for fun. If that is an OMV then it is binding on all persons.

If no moral values are objective, then all moral values are subjective. They are like matters of personal taste. For example, I like Coke, you like Pepsi. That may be true. But it's only a personal truth. Therefore those who disagree have no duty to agree with it.

Now, how can we know OMVs exist? Which is to say, for example, how can we know that It is wrong to boil babies for fun is not merely someone's subjective truth, but is an OMV and binding on all persons?

The answer is: OMVs function as properly basic beliefs. A properly basic belief is one that we believe to be true even though we can provide no evidence for its truth. Examples of properly basic beliefs include: mathematical truths (e.g., 1 + 1 = 2), the laws of logic (e.g., modus ponens), and sense experience (viz., that we can trust our senses to give us true knowledge of the external world). Consider the third example, that of our sense experience. Our trust in the veridicality of our senses cannot be evidentially proven, since to do so would be to rely on (trust in) our senses.

We just see that Boiling babies for fun is wrong. BTW, we operate this way all the time. If the Penn State U Assistant Football Coach sodomized boys, then we believe it was morally wrong to do that, that no one should be allowed to do that, and we adjudicate against such immoral behavior.

2. What are the implications of objective morals?

The existence of OMVs ensures that we can write laws that punish those who violate them. For example, the moral command It is wrong to sodomize boys for one's own sexual gratification is true, and true for everybody. (Note: in logic, all truths are true for everybody. Not to think so is to commit the "subjectivist fallacy." See, e.g., Lewis Vaughn, The Power of Critical Thinking: Effective Reasoning About Ordinary and Extraordinary Claims, Ch. 2.) 

Another implication of the existence of OMVs is that the best explanation for their existence is God-as-Moral-Command-Giver.

3. If everyone seeks the same objective goals would this eliminate diversity?

Not when it comes to morality. No civilization desires diversity when it comes to morality, in the same way that no culture desires diversity when it comes to mathematical truths such as 1+1=2. Diversity on properly basic beliefs would bring chaos.

4. What is the source of objective morality?

I think the best, and only, explanation for the existence of OMVs is that there is a God who issues commands. In philosophy this is called Divine Command Theory. If moral values exist independently of persons (objectively), then where do they exist? Plato thought OMVs existed. He knew they could not exist in human minds. Thus he posited the realm of the Forms. Both divine command theorists and Platonists agree that OMVs must be explained as non-subjective realities. I think the existence of an all-good God best explains their existence.

5. Do you see objective morality more as a system of rules that are to limit amoral behaviors or as positive actions that seek to maximize objective good?

I see the latter as true; viz., God-issued OMVs are not for the sake of preventing us from doing things, but for allowing us to do things and to experience relative freedom.