Saturday, March 5, 2016

Dialogue with an Unbeliever on Morality

Sometimes I come across an unbeliever who has issues with the morality of God, so it is always a useful exercise to determine by what means he has reached this conclusion.
Michael: Secular morality would come from the same source as secular laws and ethics: Reason, compassion, pragmatism, science, empirical evidence, and human wishes and needs. Religious morality comes from the orders of an unaccountable dictator. There is nothing good or bad about god's morality. It is merely his whim.
Apologists try to create confusion. Morals are rules just like laws and etiquette, and ethics. They are created by and enforced by humans in order to function effectively as social animals. God's fiat is not a good answer because it concedes that the goodness of "moral" acts is merely obedience. God could just as easily said, "Thou shalt covet they neighbor's wife," and thus made envy morally righteous. God didn't create the speed limits or the rule about chewing with your mouth shut. Why is he needed to create a rule against torturing babies? And, doesn't he in fact slaughter and command the slaughter of babies in the Bible? So it seems that humans are more moral than God in that respect. 
Me: "In order to function as social animals" is a hypothetical imperative, but that is not strong enough to create a genuine sense of morality (which sometimes demands that one acts against the hypothetical imperative: for instance, functioning as a social animal in the mafia requires murdering stool pigeons, but that is a bad hypothetical imperative). What you need in order to create a genuine and coherent source of morality is a categorical imperative.
Michael: I don't think it's hypothetical at all. We need rules to govern the way cars are driven on the road so people don't crash into each other. Why bring Kant into it?
Me: Kant is using "hypothetical" not in the layman's usage of the word (as some arbitrary speculation), but rather in the sense of "being the antecedent of a logical conditional" (i.e. acting as a "hypothesis" of a statement, hence the adjectival form "hypothetical.") Your example of rules governing cars on the road illustrate hypothetical imperatives because there exists an imperative that is acting as a hypothesis to the logical statement "I must drive on the road so cars don't crash." But the problem is that a moral system consisting of only hypothetical imperatives quickly runs into the M√ľnchhausen trilemma, in that the set of hypothetical imperatives must ultimately be circular, fall into an infinite progression where there is no ultimate end, or there must be some end that is good in itself. Most dangerously, the end that is good in itself can be the moral agent, thereby resulting in ethical egoism where only rational self interest is the end, but then morality lacks the ability to tell others to behave in a certain way (because everyone has different self interests). As it happens, there is a logical way to determine whether or not something is a good in itself, and that is the universalizability criterion of the categorical imperative.
Michael: Nonsense. "I must drive on the road so cars don't crash" is not a coherent sentence. I, and all the other drivers, must follow the agreed upon rules of the road in order to avoid hurting ourselves, others, property damage, and arriving late, etc. How is any other social activity different? Why do you need Kantian mumbo jumbo to "tell others to behave in a certain way"? And how is "I'll make you burn in hell forever if you disobey my arbitrary rules," a better basis for morality?
Me: I meant to say "I must follow the rules of the road while I drive so that cars don't crash." Sorry.
I'm not sure if Kant is necessary for a coherent system of morality, but I do suspect that his is sufficient, and I definitely do know that his criticism of utilitarian ethics is valid. The problem is that "avoid hurting ourselves, others, property damage, and arriving late, etc." assumes that the other person shares the same goals as you, but it could be possible that his idea of utility is making you suffer by getting you into a fender-bender. On what basis can you say that his notion of utility is wrong and that yours is right?
Michael: Because the previously set rules say I'm right.
Me: Okay, so instead of appealing to authority, you're deciding to appeal to... tradition (as evidenced by your usage of "the previously set rules say I'm right." Make no mistake about it: that is an appeal to tradition).
Michael: Not really. I'm appealing to the current rules of the road which are written, agreed upon, and always changing. Tradition would be to ban cars 100 years ago as being non-traditional.
[When he said this, I realized that I am dealing with someone who arrives at conclusions by feelings and not dialectical reasoning.]
Me: What exactly is so special about the current rules of the road that allows you to use them as justification for enforcing your notion of utility upon my deranged driver? If you fail to answer this question, then I'm afraid that your justification amounts to special pleading. If you answer this question with "because he'll go to prison / society will tar and feather him and drive him out of town on a rail," then you concede that you don't have an issue with the logic behind "I'll make you burn in hell forever if you disobey my arbitrary rules," but rather the person behind those rules (God).
Michael: I disagree. The reason is that god's fiats are arbitrary and we are told over and over again that religious morality has nothing to do with human happiness and they don't need to make sense. With rules of the road, they are not arbitrary. They are, in part based upon pragmatism.
Me: Actually, they're based on the pragmatism of the typical driver. They are most certainly not based on the pragmatism of my deranged driver, who happens to be an anti-social 4chan user (but I repeat myself). Do you have any evidence for the existence of some Platonic "pragmatism" that you're appealing to?
Michael: No. They're not based upon the pragmatism of the typical driver. Do you not know how laws are enacted in this country? The legislative body, be it municipal, county, state, or federal deliberates on new laws. After deliberation on, say, the pragmatic aspects of a law, like, say, a speed limit of 65 mph, it is put to the executive branch. It is the pragmatism of these folks (however benighted) that carries the day. Your deranged driver doesn't fit into the mix.
Me: It appears that you are arguing in a circle. I claimed that appealing to society is the same as appealing to divine command, with the only difference being the choice of commander, and therefore appealing to society has the same problem with arbitrary commands as appealing to divine command. You then said that it does not, because the rules of society are grounded on "pragmatism." I then asked if you had evidence for this Platonic "pragmatism" that you're appealing to. You responded back by saying that it's the pragmatism of the legislative body (i.e. the will of the people) that ground pragmatism... thereby grounding ourselves back on the notion of an arbitrary commander, whom you were trying to avoid by appealing to "pragmatism" in the first place! 
Michael: Why is the government an arbitrary commander?
Me: Because the government has the ability to issue arbitrary commands. Do you really believe that Saudi Arabia's banning of women from driving is not arbitrary?
Michael: Hey, I get it. Don't let all that philosophy class go to waste. But a God who says, "Do this, regardless of the consequences, or I'll make you burn in hell forever," is not the same thing as a governmental body that adopts the recommendations of traffic engineers who have studied the problem and come up with some solution.
Me: You're right. They're not the same. There is a difference in commander, and that is exactly what my thesis is: you don't have a problem with divine command, you just have a problem with who's doing it.
Michael: Actually... It's not arbitrary. They base the ban on their religion and their deluded notions of biology. But they still offer a pragmatic explanation that women cannot drive. Their facts are wrong, but they still base the law on pragmatic reasons. I don't think governments sometime acting stupidly or for a particular special interest is the same thing as being arbitrary.
Me: Now you're evading the question I originally posed to you: why is not my deranged 4chan user's driving pragmatics better than the typical American driver's pragmatics?
Michael: The pragmatic decision as to what the rules shall be is not a personal one. The rule is agreed upon through the legal process. My personal opinion of the pragmatic value of the rule is irrelevant.
Me: And how do you think the legal process chose to make those rules and not others? I can give you the historical answer according to the majority of US judges during the 18th and 19th century, but you're not gonna like it.

Michael didn't respond further to either this or the central question posed in the dialogue: "why is not my deranged 4chan user's driving pragmatics better than the typical American driver's pragmatics?"

Strictly speaking, I committed one bit of invalid reasoning during this dialogue: when Michael asked me why the government was an arbitrary commander, I responded by saying because it has the capability of issuing arbitrary commands. Now, the astute reader would recognize that it is an unjustified deduction to conclude that the government is an arbitrary commander simply from the premise that the government has the capacity to act in such a manner. What I intended to say is that it is unjustified to believe that the government solves the problem posed by divine command (which is the main concern of the interlocutor) if the government, in fact, has the capability of issuing arbitrary commands.

No comments:

Post a Comment