Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wielenberg's Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism

On another occasion, I mentioned a review of Wielenberg's "In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism", ( Faith and Philosophy 29:1 (2009), pp. 23-41) in Philosopher's Digest. Here is a link to Wielenberg's paper itself. The paper offers an undercutting defeater for claims made by Copan, Craig, Moreland, et al. that atheism can't provide an adequate meta-ethical basis for morality.

37 comments:

Marc said...

exapologist:

Wielenberg says that "[b]ecause my theistic opponents and I agree that there are objective ethical facts, I will not present any positive arguments for the existence of such facts in this paper" (24). It seems to me that this might be a problem for Wielenberg, a problem which becomes especially relevant during his comparative analysis of his position and that of Craig, Moreland, Wainwright, etc. Also relevant is this comment: "I have an ontological commitment shared by many theists: I am committed to the obtaining of substantive, metaphysically necessary, brute facts" (26). Although furnishing reasons for thinking such facts exist resides beyond the scope of his paper, I think the theistic detractor is justified in requesting that Wielenberg offer positive arguments for their existence. Craig, Moreland, Wainwright, etc. have reasons independent of the moral argument for contending that God exists, but does Wielenberg have reasons independent of his paper's thesis for thinking that brute, ethical facts exist necessarily?

Peace,

-- Marc

exapologist said...

Hi Marc,

Hmm. I'm not sure I see what you're getting at. I take it that one of the things Wielenberg is doing in his paper is offering a critique of certain moral arguments for theism, such as the one Craig often gives:

1. If objective moral values exist, then God exists.
2. Objective moral values exist.
---
3. Therefore, God exists (1, 2 Modus Ponens)

In effect, Wielenberg is offering an undercutting defeater for (1). But if there were no good reason for accepting (2), then so much the worse for moral arguments for theism of this sort, no? But since Wielenberg accepts (2), he can't go that route.

I suspect, though, that I'm missing your point. Perhaps you could help me out a bit more?

Marc said...

exapologist:

Thanks for your helpful reply. (Sorry about my delayed response.) Let me see if I can clarify my concern.

Regarding (2), I don't wish to claim that there are no good reasons for accepting this premise, but I do wish to distinguish between Wielengerg's reasons for accepting it and the theist's (or divine command theorist's) reasons. I take Wielenberg to be announcing something like the following: if you assume that the relevant abstracta exist, here's how we might construct a non-natural, non-theistic theory of moral realism. My question is why suppose such abstracta actually exist to serve as the appropriate ontological foundation for this theory. The theist maintains that God functions as a plausible foundation of moral values, and she presumably has a reason independent of the moral argument for believing God exists. I'm curious whether Wielengerg has reasons independent of this particular argument for holding that the relevant abstracta exist.

Does that help?

Peace,

-- Marc

openphilosopher said...

Ex-Apologist,
Do you think objective moral values exist? I don't think so and I have written a small entry on my blog: http://humanitarium.wordpress.com/

under the title Nietzsche and Morality. I know that you have a much more open metaphysic that most atheist I know of. I am not convinced that anything exists outside of the spatio-temporal system but I am interested to learn you thoughts on the matter. I would love to here your feedback on the site as well. It is not geared toward skilled philosophers, but I think it makes people think.

-philosophicalinquirer

exapologist said...

Hi openphilosopher,

Thanks for the reference to your post on morality; I look forward to reading it, as well as your other posts.

I'm not settled on any particular moral theory, but I've leaned toward something like Wielenberg's view for quite some time.

I should say that I don't think my views about the existence of abstraca are all that unusual among philosophers, as very many non-theist philosophers think abstract objects exist (properties, propositions, possible worlds, and the like), in addition to the world of physical concreta.

exapologist said...

Hi Marc,

No problem about the delay. As you can see, I'm often slow in getting back with replies myself!

Although Wielenberg need only construe the view as a mere epistemic possibility to function as an undercutting defeater for premise (1) of the argument (just as Plantinga's FWD need only be construed as a mere epistemic possibility to undercut the logical problem of evil), it's interesting to consider your question independently from Wielenberg's argument. Since he's not too explicit (yet?) about his reasons, I can only speculate. However, I imagine he takes a not uncommon approach to philosophical theorizing, viz., taking our intuitive judgements as data (in this case, our moral judgements), and then constructing a theory to account for the data. The theory then accrues support to the extent that it embodies various explanatory virtues (explanatory scope, simplicity, etc.).

Given an approach like the one sketched above, one could reason to a view like Wielenberg's as follows: a certain range of data motivates an objectivist account ethics. But if one can't find a suitable supervenience base for moral facts or properties in those described in physics and chemistry textbooks, then the data pressure one to posit non-physical normative facts or properties. Now suppose there are two broad sorts of theories that posit such entities: theistic and non-theistic. Then the theory that most fully embodies the relevant theoretical virtues will thereby accrue the most support. But theistic accounts aren't as parsimonious as non-theistic accounts (why stick the moral properties in God's essence, if the properties can do all the explanatory work all by themselves?). Furthermore, theistic accounts suffer from a number of problems (the classical Euthyphro dilemma, Wes Morriston's New Euthyphro dilemma, this problem, etc.). Therefore, non-theistic versions of non-natural moral realism are to be preferred to their theistic counterparts.

Best,
EA

Speaker for the Dead said...

I would have posted this as a comment here, but it wouldn't have fit (I apologize for looking like I'm trolling - that's not my intention):

http://deusdecorusest.blogspot.com/2010/01/fish-tank-post-atheistic-moral-realism.html

I didn't articulate my thoughts as clearly as I would have liked.

smaitzen said...

Speaker for the Dead,

In your linked post, you write, "it would be much, much more ontologically elegant (and thus plausible) for the naturalist to reduce morality to psychology, rather than positing ethical brute facts that are not empirically discoverable" and "If ethical brute facts are not empirically discoverable, how are they discoverable? ... How did humanity as a species evolve to apprehend ethical truths at all? After all, if naturalism is true, human evolution was not affected at all by ethics."

I wonder if you have the same objection to normative truths that aren't ethical truths, such as truths of logic or rationality. As Thomas Nagel has argued (The Last Word), there are truths of logic or of rationality that are normative and logically prior to all empirical or theistic explanations of their truth. Consider "From only a premise of the form (P or Q), you ought not to infer P." That principle is normative ("ought"), necessarily true, and immune to any naturalistic or theistic explanation of its truth (since any such explanation would have to presuppose the principle). I read Wielenberg as placing basic ethical truths in an equally irreducible ontological category: not needing (and, if Nagel is right, not even allowing) reductive explanations of their truth. If it works for logic, why not ethics?

--Steve

Speaker for the Dead said...

My immediate response would be to deny the truth of normative logical or rational claims such as your example. I seek the truth, and believe that I would do so even if I were an atheist; however, I see no reason to believe that there is an objective brute fact about what sorts of things I *should* believe, even in cases of propositions that are necessarily true. So if P -> Q is true and P is true, it is necessarily true that Q; but it is not necessarily true (in my view) that I *ought* to believe Q. As far as I can tell, an atheist could reduce normative logical beliefs just as well as he can normative ethical beliefs.

(In fact, under certain accounts of morality, it may even be the case that I *should not* believe particular necessary truths, perhaps because believing such necessary truths would be evolutionarily disadvantageous.)

smaitzen said...

SFTD: Please attend carefully to the example I actually used. I claimed that there's an irreducible, necessary truth about what you *ought not to infer* from only a premise of the form (P or Q). I never claimed that there's some proposition you *ought to believe*, only that there's at least one proposition -- P -- that you ought not to infer from that premise. Do you really dispute that normative logical claim? Do you think you're rationally permitted to infer P? Furthermore, basic logical claims like my example can't be reduced to claims of any other kind, because claims of every other kind already presuppose the truth of basic logical claims (and the reductive explanation would presuppose their truth as well). Nagel goes even further: He says we can't even reduce our *belief* in basic logical claims to something non-logical, because we have to hold our belief in basic logic fixed while doing any possible reduction. My claim wasn't quite as strong as Nagel's, although I'm inclined to agree with him. --SM

Speaker for the Dead said...

Steve, I apologize if I misunderstood what you wrote. You claim that there is an irreducible, necessary truth about what *I* ought not to infer from only a premise of the form (P or Q). As far as I can tell, the reason you believe I ought not to infer P from (P or Q) is that not-P is logically compatible with (P or Q); in other words, given (P or Q), P is not necessarily true.

I do not, of course, dispute the non-normative claim (it is non-normative, right?) that, given (P or Q), P is not necessarily true. But I am not sure that your claim about what I ought to infer is necessarily true. (That is, if I were an atheist, I do not think I would agree with it, for the same reasons that I would be a moral nihilist.) But I may be misunderstanding something.

Also, even if I were to concede the point about normative logical claims, I think normative logical claims would be much less spooky (in a materialistic universe) than normative ethical claims, simply because our scientific understanding of how the world depends upon mathematics and logic and not at all upon morality.

smaitzen said...

SFTD: Yes, the reason I say we aren't rationally permitted (i.e., we rationally ought not) to infer P from (P or Q) is that (P or Q) doesn't imply P. You agree that (P or Q) doesn't imply P, and I take it you agree that we're not rationally permitted to infer P from (P or Q). So far, so good. But then you suggest that this latter normative claim holds only if God exists: "If I were an atheist, I do not think I would agree with [the normative claim]."

I presume you're wondering, "Where could the objective normativity -- the objective rational 'ought not' -- come from if not from God?" But Wielenberg's paper rightly challenges the premise of that question, namely, that the normativity in a domain (in his case, morality) must come from somewhere outside the domain. He shows that his theistic opponents themselves -- Adams, Craig, and Moreland -- in fact reject that premise.

Likewise: Why must rational normativity come from outside logic (the domain of rational inference)? I chose rational normativity because I think it's even easier to show that it can't have an external foundation. (Here again, I'd refer you to Nagel's short book The Last Word.) You and I agree that (a) the inference from (P or Q) to P is invalid whether or not God exists, but you say (b) it's not a rationally wrong inference if God doesn't exist. Why accept (b)? Why do we need God to vouchsafe a normative claim from logic? The only reason I can think of is the one that Wielenberg rebuts in detail.

Suggesting that moral normativity would be more spooky than rational normativity, you say "our scientific understanding of how the world [works] depends upon mathematics and logic and not at all upon morality." The explanatory irrelevance of morality has been disputed, particularly by Nicholas Sturgeon; see his "Moral Explanations" (1985) and "Moral Explanations Defended" (2006), among others. But I think it's the thin end of the wedge if I can get you to agree that at least there's rational normativity even without God. --SM

Speaker for the Dead said...

"I take it you agree that we're not rationally permitted to infer P from (P or Q)."

I agree that, were you to infer P from (P or Q), you would be making an inference that could be incorrect (because it could be the case that not-P). What I am *not* sure about is that you should therefore not infer P. For that to be true, (I think) there would have to be some general principle such as "One should only make inferences that are necessarily true" (or something like that). And I think that is the sort of principle that is up for dispute; at the moment, I don't see any reason for it to be more (or less) plausible than a general ethical principle. (That is, at the moment, I would either be realist about both or about neither.)

I am not (necessarily) trying to ground rational normativity in God or any other external foundation, as you suggested. I'm open to the possibility that your example about inferring P from (P or Q) is a normative brute fact. What I am trying to see is why it could be the case that there are objective truths about what sorts of inferences I *should* make if God does not exist - why atheistic moral realism would be preferable to atheistic moral nihilism (*not* why theistic moral realism is preferable to atheistic moral realism). In my exchange with Ex on my blog, I posed the following (hypothetical) nihilist story:

"[Our normative] beliefs ultimately boil down to evolutionary adaptations over millions of years that allowed social primates like homo sapiens to survive. There is nothing preventing us from completely explaining our ethical beliefs in terms of evolutionary psychology – why, then, posit ‘ethical brute facts’ or anything of that nature?"

I was curious as to how Ex, Wielenberg, or you would respond.

Is there any way I could access the Sturgeon papers online? I wasn't able to find them, and it sounds like they could be very relevant to this discussion.

SFTD

smaitzen said...

SFTD: I'm having trouble understanding you; maybe it will help if I respond to particular remarks you made.

were you to infer P from (P or Q), you would be making an inference that could be incorrect...

It's not just that the inference could be incorrect; the inference *is* incorrect (i.e., invalid). I take it you're saying that the conclusion could be false even if the premise were true, which is what it means to say that the inference *is* incorrect (i.e., invalid).

What I am *not* sure about is that you should therefore not infer P. For that to be true, (I think) there would have to be some general principle such as "One should only make inferences that are necessarily true" (or something like that). And I think that is the sort of principle that is up for dispute...

I might be getting this part. It sounds as though you're doubting that there are any normative truths at all (whether rational normative truths or moral normative truths), or else maybe doubting that *atheism allows for* any normative truths at all. More on that below.

I am not (necessarily) trying to ground rational normativity in God or any other external foundation, as you suggested. I'm open to the possibility that your example about inferring P from (P or Q) is a normative brute fact. What I am trying to see is why it could be the case that there are objective truths about what sorts of inferences I *should* make if God does not exist - why atheistic moral realism would be preferable to atheistic moral nihilism (*not* why theistic moral realism is preferable to atheistic moral realism).

Now I'm confused again. You say you're "open to the possibility that [my] example about inferring P from (P or Q) is a normative brute fact." But then you wonder "why it could be the case that there are objective truths about what sorts of inferences I *should* make if God does not exist." Those stances seem to be in tension. If the rational wrongness of inferring P from (P or Q) is a brute normative fact about inference, then how can it depend on whether God exists? If it depends on God's existence -- if it's a fact only because God exists -- then it's not a *brute* fact but is explained by God's existence.

You then seem to restate your question about inference as (oddly) the question "why atheistic moral realism would be preferable to atheistic moral nihilism (*not* why theistic moral realism is preferable to atheistic moral realism)" (restatement is how I'm interpreting the dash you inserted after the word "exist"). In any case, "Why atheistic moral realism rather than atheistic moral nihilism?" is a big question about which there's a huge literature. You might start with the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entries on "Moral Realism" and "Moral Non-Naturalism." I don't think the Sturgeon articles are available online, only in anthologies. One good answer is alluded to by Ex in comment #6 above: "a certain range of data motivates an objectivist account ethics." Indeed, our speech and behavior are shot-through with the assumption of moral objectivity and the assumption of normative objectivity more generally. That enormous range of data might be debunked, or explained away, but it does much less damage to our conceptual scheme if we can account for normative (including moral) objectivity within it. Wielenberg argues that atheists *can* account for it non-naturalistically (which I think is the right way), whereas other atheists say they can account for it naturalistically. In his paper, Wielenberg rebuts the objection that no atheistic account can work, and he helpfully identifies a false assumption on the part of his critics, an assumption it turns out they don't in the end accept anyway. --SM

Marc said...

exapologist:

Thanks again for entertaining and engaging my question. Due to some time constraints which are about to descend, I hope you don't mind if I keep my comments brief.

The theory then accrues support to the extent that it embodies various explanatory virtues (explanatory scope, simplicity, etc.).

Then the theory that most fully embodies the relevant theoretical virtues will thereby accrue the most support. But theistic accounts aren't as parsimonious as non-theistic accounts (why stick the moral properties in God's essence, if the properties can do all the explanatory work all by themselves?).

Speaker for the Dead spoke of ontological elegance. I'm inclined to regard theistic accounts, such as those Craig, Moreland, and Adams embrace, as more ontologically elegant and parsimonious than a non-theistic account like Wielenberg's. To my mind, locating moral properties in a single entity--in God's nature--is more parsimonious than locating them in plurality of entities. Even if we accept the thesis that "the properties can do all the work by themselves," it seems simpler to suppose that one entity carries the explanatory freight and not an array of entities. But you noted additional problems the theistic account must confront: the classical Euthyphro dilemma, Morriston's version of the dilemma, and your critique of divine command theory. I believe Craig has furnished a plausible response to the classical rendering of the dilemma (and one or two other variants), but I'm unfortunately unfamiliar with Morriston's and your (respective) arguments. So, I'll have to read those before I'm prepared to offer any remarks. Thanks for the link to your objections. Regarding Morriston's paper, it's not available online, is it?

Peace,

-- Marc

toweltowel said...

Marc, I'm not sure about your claims on ontological parsimony.

On theistic accounts, you've got God and objects and their moral properties and supervenience relations binding the properties to the objects (or, ultimately, to God's nature). On atheistic accounts, you've got objects and their moral properties and supervenience relations binding the properties to the objects (and these properties and relations might be purely naturalistic, depending on your metaethics). Pretty much the same, only minus God.

To put it another way, perhaps, the goodness of a friendship, a particular act of benevolence, or an individual's upright character are all distinct from the goodness of God (even if all of these depend on the goodness of God in some way). So it's not as if all moral properties are located in God on a theistic account. They can still be located in other good things as well.

Indeed, some moral properties had better not be located in God!: evil, wrongness, etc. Or do you mean 'located' in some way other than instantiation?

Marc said...

toweltowel:

Your first paragraph seems to concern more than just the ontological establishment of an objective moral domain in reality. For instance, it's not necessary, in my judgment, to refer to objects which exemplify moral properties when we're trying to understand the (respective) metaphysical composition of theistic and Wielenbergian accounts of moral objectivism.

The theistic account (at issue) affirms a moral ontology according to which a single entity serves as the ontological foundation for moral values and duties. Since, on this view, God's moral nature functions as the paradigm of goodness, and His commands constitute moral duties, reference need only be made to one being in the theistic metaethical infrastructure. By contrast, the Wielenbergian account affirms a moral ontology according to which numerous entities serve as the ontological foundation for moral values and duties. The metaethical infrastructure of this view requires reference to a multiplicity of beings. Interest in conforming to explanatorily simplicity appears to favor theism in this case.

To put it another way, perhaps, the goodness of a friendship, a particular act of benevolence, or an individual's upright character are all distinct from the goodness of God (even if all of these depend on the goodness of God in some way). So it's not as if all moral properties are located in God on a theistic account. They can still be located in other good things as well.

Right, but I'm not claiming that all moral properties must be located in or instantiated by God. Certainly (non-divine) objects exemplify moral properties, such as you described. And, as you recognized, the moral character these moral properties possess depends on the extent to which they approximate God's morally perfect nature.

Peace,

-- Marc

exapologist said...

Hi you guys,

Wow -- lots of discussion!

SFTD: I'm in complete agreement with Maitzen's comments, and says what I would've said (only he says it better).

Marc: Yes, the Morriston paper I referred to above that presents the New Euthyphro Dilemma can be found here.

Re: your other point: I guess I don't see how a theory that postulates normative properties + God is supposed to be a simpler hypothesis than one that just postulates the normative properties alone.

Perhaps, though, you meant to argue in terms of the theoretical virtue of explanatory scope, rather than that of simplicity. Thus, perhaps you meant to argue that the sheer existence of normative properties (the types, not the tokens, right?) cry out for explanation, and that since the non-theistic hypotheses on the table leave them unexplained (in the sense that they are left without an ontological ground), while the theistic hypothesis on the table does not (they're grounded in a concrete entity, viz., God), the latter is a better theory than the former?

I'm not sure if that is your point, but if it is, I should say that I don't see abstract objects as in need of an ontological ground or a further explanation, since (among other reasons) I take the fairly standard view (at least among philosophers) that they are eternal, immutable, necessary beings. I have made some brief remarks about this, here.

In any case, interesting discussion, folks!

Best,
EA

Speaker for the Dead said...

SM,

Thanks first of all for clearing up my first mistake about calling the inference incorrect.

I think it might be good to backtrack a bit for me to explain what my initial purpose was and what I took your purpose to be in bringing up rational normativity, because I think I did a very poor job of making myself clear. (This will clear things up in my own mind, if not in anyone else's.)

My purpose was *not* to contest directly Wielenberg's argument in his paper, but to highlight what I saw as some problems with atheistic moral realism with respect to atheistic moral nihilism (*not* with respect to theistic moral realism). It was my impression that you mentioned a (putative) rational normative fact to suggest that normative facts (including ethical facts) are not as "spooky" as I took them to be. But I, at least for now, do not think that rational normative facts like the one you brought up are any less spooky than ethical facts. That's approximately where things stand right now, according to my (foggy) memory.

This is the tension you saw in what I wrote: "If the rational wrongness of inferring P from (P or Q) is a brute normative fact about inference, then how can it depend on whether God exists? If it depends on God's existence -- if it's a fact only because God exists -- then it's not a *brute* fact but is explained by God's existence."

I was not trying to suggest that ethical brute facts could only be facts if God existed; what I was trying to suggest is that I find it much more likely that there are such things as ethical brute facts if God exists - not because His existence would provide some sort of direct explanation for them (that, as you noted, would preclude their being *brute* facts), but because His existence would (in my opinion) make ethical brute facts much less strange, and thus more plausible.

Towel has sent me the Sturgeon papers, which I look forward to reading. At any rate, thank you for honing my thoughts. - Speaker

Marc said...

exapologist:

Thanks for the link to Morriston's paper and for bringing it to my attention. I enjoy and appreciate his work, so I look forward to the read.

I'm motivated to think that theism offers a simpler hypothesis because, explanatorily, an ontology populated by one entity is, ceteris paribus, preferable to an ontology populated by numerous entities. Indeed, Wielenberg's account postulates normative properties, and the theistic account postulates normative propers and God. But, the metaethics of divine command theory need only make reference to God to explain theism's moral objectivism. Wielenberg's view is incomplete without reference to (as Plantinga might say) a Platonic horde of entities.

When I consider the question, "How many entities are required to perform the explanatory work?", it seems to me that theism offers the more parsimonious option. I think that best expresses my underlying rationale.

Peace,

-- Marc

exapologist said...

Hi Marc,

I'm trying to follow your point in your most recent comment, but I'm having trouble, starting with this bit:

I'm motivated to think that theism offers a simpler hypothesis because, explanatorily, an ontology populated by one entity is, ceteris paribus, preferable to an ontology populated by numerous entities. Indeed, Wielenberg's account postulates normative properties, and the theistic account postulates normative properties and God.But, the metaethics of divine command theory need only make reference to God to explain theism's moral objectivism.

When I consider this passage, it sounds, to my mind, like one of the things you're saying is that (i) the non-theistic account only postulates normative moral properties to get the explanatory work done, while the theistic account postulates the normative moral properties plus God to get the same explanatory work done, but (ii) the theistic account only appeals to God to get the explanatory work done. This makes me think that I'm not following you. Perhaps you could elaborate a bit more on what you have in mind?

Best,
EA

Nancy Behar said...

Hi EA,

I think it is misleading to say that marc's theistic ethics posits God plus moral properties.

I think it is much less misleading to attribute to him the following idea:

the theistic account analyzes moral properties in terms of God. Or maybe that moral properties are identical to some theological property.

Now, consider the familiar claim that water and H2O are identical properties.

Contrast two theories.
Theory1: Water is brute, simple, and unanalyzable.

Theory2: Water is analyzable in terms of (or is identical to) chemical properties.

I think it would be misleading to say that theory1 is simpler than theory2 because theory1 only posits water while theory2 posits water plus chemical properties.

Similarly, I think it is misleading to say that marc's theistic theory is less simple than the non-naturalists becuase the non-naturalist posits only moral properties while marc posits theistic and moral properties.

Maybe the non-naturalist non-theistic form of moral realism is simpler than marc's theistic moral realism. But if it is, I do not think it is for the reason that you are saying.

Consider two theories about counterfactuals.

Theory A says that counterfacutals are brute and unanalyzable.

Theory B says that counterfactuals are analyzable in terms of possible worlds.

I think it would be incorrect to say that Theory A is preferable to Theory B because A posits only counterfactuals while B posits counterfacutals plus possible worlds.

But that sounds like what is being said about Marc's theory.

exapologist said...

Hi Nancy,

Shoot, I'm sorry you took my remarks as misleading. My intention was the opposite, in fact, which is why I overtly Modus Tollensed the interpretation when I realized that it led to a contradiction, and then asked for further elaboration.

In any case, I wanted to say that I found the account you sketched interesting. That sounds pretty much like Adams's account in Finite and Infinite Goods, and the view that Wielenberg primarily discusses in the paper that is the topic of this post. On that head, my own reasons for failing to see why Adams's account is preferable to non-theistic non-natural moral realism are the same as Wielenberg's in his paper.

Best,
EA

Nancy Behar said...

Hi EA

"Shoot, I'm sorry you took my remarks as misleading. My intention was the opposite, in fact, which is why I overtly Modus Tollensed the interpretation when I realized that it led to a contradiction, and then asked for further elaboration."


I didn't mean for what I said to come off as accusatory or anything. Sorry about that. I just meant to suggest a different interpretation of Marc.

Best,
NB

Speaker for the Dead said...

(Responding to your comment on the other blog, EA. I apologize; I did not mean to divert traffic from your blog or to confuse the discussion by dividing it between two different posts.)

I suppose that I am rather surprised that so much deference would be given to the common-sense understanding of our moral judgments. Were I an atheist, I would find a CN account of our moral judgments (grounded in, say, evolutionary psychology) extremely compelling. (Even as a Christian, I am not sure that I can say that such an account is demonstrably incorrect - only incomplete.)

Of course, none of what I've just said yet constitutes an argument; that would require a whole new (and hopefully forthcoming!) post.

Nancy Behar said...

Hi EA,

I read W's paper. I guess I didn't find what he said about Adams to be very persuasive.

As I understood him, his response to Adams went something like this:

According to various people, Adams' account is preferable to W's account because Adams does not have brute, unexplained moral properties whereas W does.

W replies that Adams does have brute unexplained moral properties. He attributes to Adams the idea that God = the Good. God is brute and unexplained. God is identical to goodness. So Adams has a moral property, goodnesss, that is brute and unexplained.

First, I think that W misunderstands Adams. It is true that Adams says things in Finite and Infinite Goods (FIG) such as "God is the Good" and he titles the first chapter of FIG 'God as the Good'. But I don't think Adams is really saying that God = Goodness. Rather, I think that these phrases are supposed to evoke similarities between Adams and Plato. For Plato, the Good is a form. the goodness of other things is to be analyzed in terms of the relations they bear to the form Good.
Similarly, for Adams' God as the Good doesn't mean that God is identical to the property Goodness. What it means is that the goodness of objects is to be analyzed in terms of the relevant relations that they bear to God.

For Adams, an object is good to degree, n, if and only if that object is similar to God to degree, n, (plus a bunch of bells and whistles).

So God does not equal goodness. Goodness is to be analyzed in terms of a similarity relation to God.

Now, in light of this, consider two theorists about counterfactuals W* and David Lewis.

Lewis analyzes counterfactuals in terms of the similarity relations between possible worlds.

W* claims that possible worlds are brute and unanalyzable.

To me it seems like Lewis' theory is preferable to W*'s theory because W* takes counterfacutals to be brute and unanalyzable whereas Lewis can analyze them. That is a reason to favor Lewis' theory over W*'s.

Imagine that W* made the following response to the argument just given:

"Lewis' theory does not have an advantage over mine. For we both posit brute and unanalzyable counterfactuals. Lewis identifies counterfactuals with similarity relations between possible worlds. He takes possible worlds and similarity relations to be brute and unanalyzable. So for Lewis, just like for me, counterfactuals are brute and unanalyzable."

I think W*'s response is a bad one. I think that Lewis' theory is better than W*'s.

But I don't see how W's response to Adams is any better than W*'s response to Lewis. They both seem bad to me. If Adams can really pull off an analysis of goodness in terms of similarity relations to God (maybe he can't), then I think that is a point in favor of Adams and a point against W.

The thread is getting long. So don't feel obligated to respond if you're getting bored with the topic or if you want to move on to something else. These are just my two cents for whatever its worth. But if you have any thoughts, I'd be interested in them.

Best,
NB

Nancy Behar said...

Whoops

"W* claims that possible worlds are brute and unanalyzable."

should read this way instead

"W* claims that counterfactuals are brute and unanalyzable."

exapologist said...

Hi Nancy,

Re: Wielenberg on Adams's analysis of goodness:
It's been more than half a decade since Robert Adams visited our grad seminar on his Finite and Infinite Goods[1], so I may be misremembering, but I seem to remember Adams himself telling us that on his view, God is to be identified with the Good. So I think Wielenberg is not making a mistake in attributing the view to Adams.

In any case, I think you might be running together Adams's treatments of the two sorts of goods he discusses in Finite and Infinite Goods (which is hinted at in the title of the book). There, he distinguishes between the transcendent, infinite Good -- the Good itself -- from the goodness exemplified by finite entities. The former is God himself; the latter is a resembance relation between finite entities and God.

This account (of God as the Good itself) seems to bear out in the text. Thus, starting on p. 3 of my copy of FaIG: "On my view, the infinite or transcendent good is God." But perhaps the clearest passage is this one on p. 42: "If God is the Good itself, then the Good is not an abstract object but a concrete (though not a physical) individual. Indeed, it is a person, or importantly like a person....the Good itself is a person and, indeed, a lover."

Best,
EA
---------------
[1] back when he and Marilyn were on the job market for senior positions. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, they accepted an offer from Oxford over ours.

Nancy Behar said...

Hi EA,

OK. Never mind which interpretation is correct. Suppose your interpretation is right and my interpretation is wrong.

Regardless of which interpretation is correct, we are free to explore other interesting theories in the neighborhood of Adams' theory--even if such theories are not the precise one that Adams explicitly endorsed.

Suppose we modify Adams' theory in the following way: Drop the idea that there are distinct kinds of goodness--one kind which is identical to God and the goodness of other objects which is a sort of similarity to God.

Suppose we say that the goodness of God and the goodness of other objects is to be analyzed according to the (mis)interpretation of Adams that I give above.

So: An object, o, is good to degree, n, if and only if o is similar to God to degree n (plus bells and whistles). where o can be God or any other object.

Now here is my question, how does W's argument apply to this revision of the theory? It is a simple, natural revision of the theory. It is not weirdly disjunctive like Adams' actual theory is. How would W's argument work against this modification of the theory.

Best,
NB

Marc said...

EA:

I can see how my imprecision caused some confusion. Sorry about that. Let me see if I can dissolve some of this opacity.

I first want to express an appreciation for both your and Nancy's respective comments, as they've helped me identify a lack of clarity--perhaps an error--in the articulation of my position. Your request for an elaboration and the following observation of hers prompted me to reevaluate something I said earlier:

I think it is misleading to say that marc's theistic ethics posits God plus moral properties.

I'm in agreement, so what I said here needs revision to more clearly delineate my view:

Wielenberg's account postulates normative properties, and the theistic account postulates normative properties and God.

Upon reflection, I realize the ambiguity of the "and" (immediately prior to "God") is troublesome. It seems to suggest, in the theist's moral ontology, that there's a certain "metaphysical distance" between God and the moral properties which constitute His nature. I'm skeptical about divine simplicity, so, like Plantinga and Craig, I want to affirm some distance (or distinction) between God and His nature. But I think the above "and" puts too much distance between God and His moral properties. Thus, to assert that "the theistic account postulates normative properties and God" isn't only imprecise but also superfluous.

Wielenberg, however, does want to preserve a substantial, metaphysical distance (or what have you) between each of the moral properties which his account comprises. His moral ontology, to be complete, requires a multitude of distinct entities, where each entity has one explanatory purpose. God possesses a multitude of properties, but only one entity is needed explanatorily. Phrased differently, the explanatory ultimate of Wielenberg's ontology requires a postulation of numerous entities; each entity is itself an explanatory ultimate. The explanatory ultimate of the theist's ontology requires the postulation of a single entity. Distinct aspects of this entity are invoked, but the account employs one entity nevertheless.

In summary, the theist proposes one explanatory ultimate, and the Wielenbergian proposes a multiplicity of explanatory ultimata. If so, the theist's proposal would appear to be simpler.

I hope that's a little clearer!

Peace,

-- Marc

P.S. To repeat something Nancy said: "don't feel obligated to respond if you're getting bored with the topic or if you want to move on to something else." No worries, whatever you decide. =)

Marc said...

Editorial note:

In the final paragraph of my last entry, "ultimata" should be "ultimates." The former is entirely the wrong word. I beg your pardon for this indiscretion.

-- Marc

exapologist said...

Hi Nancy and Marc,

Thanks for your latest comments. Sure, I'd be happy to continue discussing these issues with you. Would you two mind if we discuss these issues at a(n even) slower pace, though? I'd like to keep this discussion going, but I'd also like to post on and discuss other things as well.

Best,
EA

exapologist said...

Hi Nancy,

Before replying, let me make sure I'm understanding the point you're making.

As I understand you, your point is that while both the theistic and the non-theistic accounts of moral realist meta-ethics on the table posit non-natural normative properties to explain the data of our moral judgements, Wielenberg has yet to show that theistic accounts fail to have an edge on their non-theistic counterparts. For the latter leave the property of goodness unanalyzed (and perhaps unanalyzable, as Moore argued and as Wielenberg seems to echo), while the former offer an analysis of the property of goodness (in this case, in terms of a resemblance relation between finite things and God). And if this account can do explanatory work beyond merely playing the role of truth-makers for moral claims (e.g., providing an illuminating account of the nature of goodness; providing an explantory basis for when a person, action, or state of affairs is good or bad, etc.), then at least one theistic non-natural realist meta-ethical account is to be preferred to Wielenberg's account.

Is this the point you are making?

Best,
EA

Nancy Behar said...

Hey EA and Marc,

I don't think I have much more to say on this topic. I'm definitely up for slowing this down. Of course, if either of you have anything else to say about this I'll read it with interest. But I think I'm about done.

Nancy Behar

exapologist said...

Hi Nancy,

Sorry for the delay. In any case, re: your point:

I guess I'm inclined to think that Wielenberg is entirely successful in his primary aim of undercutting the stronger Craig-Morland/style moral arguments that conclude that God's existence is required to ground morality. For all he has to do to undercut such arguments is to trot out an epistemically possible scenario according to which objective morality exists whether or not God exists. And it seems to me that he has done so with his Platonistic account of moral properties.

However, he also seems to argue for a slightly stronger claim in the paper, viz., that his account of moral realism is at least as plausible as the best theistic account (viz., Adams's account in his Finite and Infinite Goods). If he is successful, then he undercuts even more modest moral arguments for theism, which aim to show not that theism is required for objective morality, but rather that theism provides the basis for the most plausible account of objective morality.

Does he succeed? Well, if we stick to Adams's account in FaIG, where God is the Good itself, then I'm inclined to agree with Wielenberg that the claimed weakness of his sort of account applies with equal force to Adams's account (e.g., both leave basic moral facts ungrounded). And if so, then I think he has successfully defended the stronger claim as well.

(There are of course stronger claims in the neighborhood that Wielenberg might've argued for, such as that Adams's God-dependent account of objective morality is less plausible than his God-neutral account of objective morality. But since Wielenberg is primarily engaged in (what Plantinga calls) "negative apologetics" - i.e., defending atheism against objections, as opposed to arguing primarily for its truth -- defending such a claim isn't necessary for his project.)

But what about your interesting point -- the one about Wielenberg's need to show that his account has at least as much theoretical utility with respect to (your modified version of) Adams's account of goodness? I guess I'm inclined to say that Adams has more work to do before he can establish this. In particular, he needs to show that the divine resemblance relation can handle our intuitions about goodness across a wide range of cases (and remember that his account is supposed to account for our intuitions of both moral and non-moral goodness). But it's at least not clear that this can be done. For example, consider a good or excellent knife (this example is taken from Thomas Pink's review of Adams's book in MInd). What makes a knife good or excellent? Presumably it is its ability to cut things well. But in what sense does a knife resemble God? This is at least not clear. In fact, the goodness of a knife is defined in terms of its usefulness, and yet Adams explicitly rejects utility as a part of his account of goodness. (See Timothy Chappell's review of Adams's book in Faith and Philosophy for more prima facie counterexamples to both the necessity and sufficiency of the divine resemblance relation account goodness).

Beyond Adams's account of goodness, I worry about the plausibility of his account of moral obligation, which is explained in terms of community practices of commanding (when these commands are in conformity with the Good). I have written about my worries about this, here, just in case you're interested.

So in light of these sorts of worries, I'm inclined to think that if Adam's account of objective moral facts is better than (and not merely as plausible as) Wielenberg's account, he has a bit more work to do to justify this claim.

In any case, those are my thoughts about your very interesting point.

Best,
EA

Nancy Behar said...

Hi EA,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I will read the link you provided to your criticisms of Adams' theory of obligation.

My view about FIG is that Adams is onto an interesting theory and he says important things. But he does a really bad job, in my opinion, of fleshing out the precise details of the theory and a lot of what he says is confusing. So I agree with you that much more work is needed to make the theory plausible.

NB

exapologist said...

Hi Marc,

Ugh. I got so caught up in other stuff that I forgot to get back to you -- so sorry about that!

Regarding your point: I guess my fundamental worry is that I don't (yet) see how God serves as ground of moral properties. Is the idea that the normative properties (the types, not merely the tokens) require God as their causal or explanatory ground in order to exist at all? But then presumably normative properties aren't special in this regard; all the other properties (triangularity, evenness, redness, etc.) would thus likewise need God as their ground, no?

If so then it looks as if we're getting into the territory of theistic activism (whether theistic conceptualism or some other version). If so, then I guess I worry about the plausibility of this sort of view. Just in case you're interested, I've stated my concerns about theistic activist views here and here.

Sorry again for the delay!

All the best,
EA

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