Atheist prayer experiment: Week 2 – Moral arguments

Nothing much to report. Like others, I am finding it hard to actually concentrate on praying rather than free-associating to something related, even in the space of three minutes. Nothing has happened in my life suggestive of divine signalling: no particular experiences, life has not taken a dramatic turn for the better, etc. etc. I will, naturally, persevere.

ASIDE: There seems a lot of talk about the moral argument, at least on the facebook group, but an unhappily small proportion of that links up to moral philosophy.

On the heathen side, a lot is made of the plasticity of moral norms through time and through space, but this is not really what the moral argument is about. There is a similar diversity of views about natural history or planetary motion, but we would just say those places and times that disagree with us were mistaken about the true answers for these things. More importantly, we are inclined to say there must be a right answer out there (even if we do not or can never know it) about scientific questions. The moral argument urges us to accept that ethical questions have a similar objective/mind-independent-truth to them (not that we have these truths, or that everyone agrees on these truths), and the only way we can secure this is via theism.

On the other hand, team Theist seems to be asserting the key claims to an almost question-begging degree. For it is a live issue whether indeed moral realism (= there are true moral propositions) is true, and even liver that there are no satisfactory accounts of moral realism that are not theistic. The general moves being made is to support moral realism by saying ‘we just know slicing up babies is wrong no matter what we think about it’, and then supporting the ‘theism is necessary clause’ by ‘Michael Ruse is an atheist philosopher who agrees!’. Two paragraphs to show neither really cuts it:

One can offer accounts of moral language and moral norms that deny moral propositions have a truth value without gutting their importance. Take something like norm-expressivism: (crudely,) moral language is an expression of affirmed community norms, and remarks upon who (and what) is worthy of praise or blame. Norm-expressivists can happily affirm that torturing babies is really wrong, and that they would banish baby-torturers from their community of judgement. But there are no facts out in the world which demonstrate baby torturing is immoral – it is simply the case that the non-baby-torturers prefer their valuations of the world, and think that people should have minds like them when making evaluations. So on the face of it norm expressivists can use moral language robustly (instead of having to accept ‘well, it’s just our opinion, so I guess we should be okay with baby-torture), it can model how communities and stuff use moral language, and does not demand moral facts in non-minimalist senses. Great!

Another approach is to accept moral realism, but to say that we should equate values to certain facts – ethical naturalism. To take one example, one could be a hedonist and say that good supervenes on happiness, and whenever we use the word ‘good’ we pick out particular (materialist) states of affairs that lead to happy mental states. There is going to be a fact of the matter about which states of affairs have which amounts of happy mental states, and so we have objective means of working out which states of affairs are better and worse than others (and baby-torture is going to be in almost all cases dispreffered). Sorted!

Now, it may be these accounts aren’t tenable – maybe norm-expressivism fails to have its cake and eat it, or hedonism just isn’t a good candidate for how the moral world really is. But it isn’t good enough for the purposes of the moral argument just to state there are no answers bar theism, or to conclude this is true after looking at one evolutionary ethics account (i.e. Ruse’s) – that would be like me dismissing that theism has any answer to the problem of evil after dismissing the soul-making theodicy. What needs to be done is showing at least a reasonable survey of the accounts *popular in contemporary moral philosophy* fail to secure a meaningful morality, and that theism does (contra euthythro worries etc.)

Would that folks start trying to do this.

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