Moral anti-realism and the problem of evil

Italianate_Landscape_with_an_Artist_Sketching_from_NatureOn several recent episodes of the Stand to Reason podcast, Greg Koukl has argued that those who do not hold to moral realism cannot put forth the problem of evil as evidence against the existence of God because, in short, they cannot define evil. J. Warner Wallace makes the same claim in Cold Case Christianity. They tie this back to the moral argument, wherein the existence of objective morality counts as evidence for the existence of God (as the ultimate grounding of that morality). They then show that this results in an ironic turnabout wherein the claim that evil exists actually counts in favor of God’s existence rather than against it.

Support for subjective morality means surrendering the most rhetorically appealing argument against God:  evil.
– Greg Koukl in Solid Ground, May/June 2014

The problem of evil is perhaps the most difficult issue to address … When people complain that there is evil in the world, they are not simply offering their opinion. They are instead saying that true, objective evil exists. … the existence of true evil necessitates the presence of God as a standard of true virtue.
– J. Warner Wallace in Cold Case Christianity, p 134-135

For this post I want to simply consider the claim that a moral anti-realist is being inconsistent if they assert the problem of evil as evidence against the existence of God.

Let me paint a picture…

David Hume said that “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”. As far as I can tell, we generally agree that beauty is a subjective judgment. There is no absolute standard of beauty. What one man finds beautiful, another may not.

Suppose a painter has spent a lifetime creating intricate paintings of serene, natural settings filled with mountains, streams, meadows and wildlife. He doesn’t want credit for his work so he submits everything anonymously and is only known to the art world as “Mr. X”. To each piece he attaches a dialog highlighting the aesthetic merits of the painting – the rich hues, the use of light and shadow and, most importantly, the realism. Throughout the course of his life he has closed every dialog with the phrase “Nothing is more beautiful than reality”. All the while, this same painter has been a vociferous critic of abstract art. He would regularly publish editorials bashing the modern art movements as having produced nothing but pointless garbage. To him, these “artists” were simply wasting perfectly good paint. Everybody knew exactly where Mr. X stood, though they didn’t know who he was.

abstractThen one morning a curator arrives at his museum to find a painting on his doorstep. The painting is little more than a few haphazard lines and a couple splatters of paint. Attached to the painting is a note that simply says “My most beautiful work. – Mr. X”. The curator sets it aside as a curiosity. As the years go by Mr. X continues submitting more of his traditional landscape paintings and more editorials about the irreverence of abstract art. There is no hint that anything has changed.

So what do we make of the curious abstract painting and note attributed to Mr. X? Was it a joke? Did it actually come from somebody else? No matter what the answer is, there is a simple contradiction: either all the other paintings betray Mr. X’s true perspective, or the note on the abstract painting is wrong. The question of “objective beauty” is irrelevant.

Back to the problem of evil

Hopefully its clear how this analogy relates back to the moral anti-realist’s use of the problem of evil, but I’ll dissect it anyway. God is Mr. X, realist art equates to the moral good and abstract art equates to the moral evil. As with Mr. X, repeated exposure to God’s viewpoint, via divine revelation and theology, have shown us what he considers to be good and evil. God’s morality has been spelled out for us directly (e.g., the ten commandments, sermon on the mount), in rules of thumb (e.g., do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and by the moral law that he has written on the hearts of men. We get it. We have a pretty clear picture of what it is that God considers morally good and morally evil and for the most part we share that perspective and are able to identify moral judgments that we know will align with God’s morality.

So what do we make of the presence of evil in God’s dominion? As far as I can tell, moral realism doesn’t even come into play. The problem of evil is not exposing a contradiction between God’s dominion and an objective morality; it is exposing a contradiction between God’s dominion and his revealed character and attributes. Just as with the mysterious painting, the question of objectivity is irrelevant. We perceive evil in accordance with God’s definition of evil, which is generally shared with our definition of evil, and we wonder why he doesn’t stop it.

If moral realism is an unnecessary addition to the problem of evil then the apologists’ turnabout falls flat. So does the problem of evil count against the existence of God? Well, clearly one solution is that he simply isn’t there but that isn’t the only option. You could also accept that either ‘true morality’ feels uncomfortably immoral or that God is not perfect. No matter what, some concession appears to be necessary. The problem of evil is not some half-wit gimmick that can be turned on its head to defend the existence of God. It is a real problem that cannot be ignored.

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32 thoughts on “Moral anti-realism and the problem of evil

  1. Hi Travis, I have agonised a lot about the problem of evil, and my current thinking is that I think you are partly right and partly not. Let’s start with the “right”.

    I agree that some evil is very very awful, and when I hear news of atrocities, natural disasters or starvation, it makes me feel sick at heart. I agree that the evil in the world makes it harder to believe in God; it counts as an effective argument against God’s existence. I accept this because I don’t have a really convincing explanation. Not all christians think the way I do, and they try to find some way to soften the argument, but I don’t think these solve the problem. I have some mitigating thoughts but that is all. If that was all the evidence there is, I could not believe in God. But that isn’t all the evidence there is!

    Take the Cosmological argument, which we are all familiar with. Scientific naturalism really has no explanation for why the universe exists. If we trace everything back as far as we can conceivably go, we run out of scientific explanation, we get to the end of science. Logically, either there is no explanation for it (because we have exhausted science) or there is a non-scientific explanation, which can be the basis for an argument for God. Now on the same basis that I accept that evil reduces the probability God exists because I have no reasonable explanation, so I believe the naturalist should agree that the Cosmological argument increases the probability that God exists because they have no reasonable explanation. Not all do this of course, in fact very few do, but I think that makes them as inconsistent as you would find the christians who try to wriggle out of the problem of evil.

    The same could be said for the Moral argument. Again, many atheists can’t help making moral judgments and acting as if morality is objective, and they can’t explain this either. So again, this ought to be seen as making God more probable.

    So here is my key point. There are many arguments for and against God’s existence. But the pro-God arguments seem to me to be more numerous, more powerful and more fundamental. That is my honest assessment, and I think I can put a strong case to support it. (By ‘fundamental’, I mean that they deal in matters like the existence of the universe, or of objective morality, or of rationality, that the naturalist has to presume before making most counter arguments.) So, as I see it, the cumulative effect of all this is the make God’s existence significantly more probable than not, even though there is significant evidence either way.

    These thoughts also help me assess your argument to separate the argument from evil from objective morality (which I think is very interesting). Yes, we can re-write the argument from evil to base it on apparent inconsistencies between God’s goodness and the evil in the world as defined by that goodness. But this weakens the argument greatly. Objective morality is an absolute which we can believe we know something about. But God’s alleged motives and reasons are far more obscure to us humans. There must inevitably be far more to God than we can ever understand, and so there may well be reasons that we cannot assess or even know. So the argument cannot be stated formally without some proposition that we understand what God is doing – which would be very hard to argue. So it removes one theistic defence, but only at the expense of weakening the argument.

    I include these latter comments just to enter into joint discussion on your argument. My real ‘answer’ is what I said first – that your argument does expose inconsistencies, but other arguments expose more inconsistencies in the atheist position.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment on some interesting ideas.

    • Hi Eric,
      Thanks for the comments. I completely agree with your methodology. We need to weigh all the evidence. It is simply the case that we currently disagree about where the totality of the evidence points. See my Where I Am page for an outline of my current leanings.

      I do consider the cosmological argument, and fine-tuning in particular, to be evidence which favors a creator, though I’m still learning a lot. That said, I don’t think it tells us much about the creator and it seems that it works just as well in favor of theism as it does in favor of a causal loop or that we live in a simulation or any number of similar theories. There are also many variations of multiverse theories that can explain the fine-tuning, though they do little for the first cause.

      More on topic, you said

      The same could be said for the Moral argument. Again, many atheists can’t help making moral judgments and acting as if morality is objective, and they can’t explain this either. So again, this ought to be seen as making God more probable.

      The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. I’m sure that there are some athiests who assume objective morality but can’t explain it, but there are other possibilities which try to define the nature of morality and don’t include anything that makes God more probable. You would have to show that objective morality is most likely true before it counts in favor of God. I don’t see a compelling case for this, so I have left it off my Where I Am page.

      Yes, we can re-write the argument from evil to base it on apparent inconsistencies between God’s goodness and the evil in the world as defined by that goodness. But this weakens the argument greatly.

      I listed the three ways that we are said to know God’s moral character: spelled out for us directly, in rules of thumb and by the moral law that he has written on the hearts of men. I take the last to be roughly equivalent to a belief in objective morality. Are these not fair assumptions? By taking on this assumption as part of the consideration, it is perfectly valid for the person contemplating the problem of evil to consider their own moral leanings as some measure of reflection of God’s moral nature.They do not need to accept the assumptions as true, only to recognize that they are how we supposed to understand God and that this yields results which are inconsistent with reality.

      Objective morality is an absolute which we can believe we know something about.

      Please elaborate. What is it that you know about objective morality?

      • ” I completely agree with your methodology. …. It is simply the case that we currently disagree about where the totality of the evidence points. See my Where I Am page for an outline of my current leanings.”

        Hi Travis, it is nice we can agree on methodology – I have found few non-believers who agree here. I checked out that page, and I can see where we disagree. There are several matters (Origin of humans/mind, the inspiration of the Bible, the efficacy of prayer) which you list as negatives but which I see as positives, which changes things quite a lot. Then there is the life of Jesus which you haven’t listed anywhere which is also a positive for me. And, finally, I think most of the negative arguments (apart from suffering) are not very strong arguments to me (as are a couple of negative arguments you don’t mention). I would like to discuss those differences somewhere, but there is no place on that page – understandably, because you will be changing it all the time.

        “The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. I’m sure that there are some athiests who assume objective morality but can’t explain it, but there are other possibilities which try to define the nature of morality and don’t include anything that makes God more probable. You would have to show that objective morality is most likely true before it counts in favor of God. I don’t see a compelling case for this”

        I have discussed the moral argument here. I think it is quite convincing, and I don’t really understand your objection here. Basically it says that either naturalists should (1) offer a reason to think ethics are objective, or (2) stop speaking and behaving as if they are, or (3) admit to a logical inconsistency in their thinking. Some try (2), and maybe they can live that way, but I think it would be very hard. If we see a gross injustice or grossly hurtful act (rape, pedophilia, the holocaust, etc) we seem unable to just say “oh well, that might be evil for me, but it’s OK for them” – and I’m glad we can’t feel comfortable to say that.

        So for most of us it’s (1) or (3). But I’ve never yet seen anyone do (1) from naturalism. But (3) means we are admitting to naturalism being inadequate at this point. Which is enough to say naturalism is shown to be less likely to be true.

        “They do not need to accept the assumptions as true, only to recognize that they are how we supposed to understand God and that this yields results which are inconsistent with reality.”

        If I tell you that atoms are all coloured red, you will reasonably wonder how that can be true, and how I could know that, and you would ask me to explain. And if I couldn’t, you would reasonably conclude that the idea sounds silly and I didn’t know what I’m talking about. But if Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking tell you that space is curved, or particles miles apart can nevertheless affect each other, backwards in time, due to quantum entanglement, you would likely also not understand, but you would be more inclined to believe them because of their status as thinkers. That is eminently reasonable.

        So if you replace “objective morality which we all recognise” in the argument from evil with “morality that is inconsistent with the revealed character of God”, you are replacing something we all know something about (good and evil) with something we know far less about (the deepest thinking of God’s mind). So we have to assume that, like Einstein and Hawking, there may be things that God understands that we don’t. (That qualifies as understatement of the year!) So we are left with having to argue that God couldn’t have other things in mind that we don’t know about, a very questionable assumption. In the end, I think basing the argument on objective evil has a stronger basis, but it then allows the “Where does objective morality come from?” argument. Either way, the argument from evil is weakened intellectually, even though it is still very forceful emotionally.

        “Please elaborate. What is it that you know about objective morality?”

        I think we all know something about objective morality. We all know that rape and pedophilia and torture are inherently evil. If they are ever justified (which I doubt) then that would be an extreme situation. We all instinctively feel that – and if anyone doesn’t, we think them a moral monster or a human being deficient in some way. The problem for logical positivists and most modern naturalists (who believe in scientism – that the only worthwhile knowledge is scientific) is that logic tells us that if naturalism is true and we are the product of evolution and natural selection alone, then those behaviours will be justified sometimes if they make it more likely our genes will survive. So a naturalist feels an enormous disjunct between what their scientific rationalism tells them must be true and what they feel instinctively. (Yes I know the situation is more complex than that, what with arguments about selection for altruism, group selection, etc, but I feel what I have said is fair.)

        In fact, religions and ethical systems all around the world and through history have had lots of things in common, summed up in “do as you would be done by”. Most of us know that is a true ethic, we just don’t live up to it all the time, we sometimes truncate it significantly, and, like I said, some of us don’t know how to justify it rationally.

        For me, the objective ethic was given to us by Jesus: “Love God whole-heartedly and love your neighbour as yourself.” AS he said, all other laws and behaviours are governed by this.

        Thanks again.

    • Hi Eric,
      I never turned on comments for the Where I Am page because I thought I would have more detailed posts on everything and would prefer more focused discussion in those posts – but that’s taking a lot longer than I expected. With that in mind, and given that you’re not the first person who has made this observation, I’ve gone ahead and opened up comments on that page. Have at it.

      Regarding your moral argument, I don’t think your trilemma covers all possibilities. Why can’t it be that what you perceive as people acting as if there is objective morality is actually people deeply valuing their moral judgment and wanting others to share in their perspective? Or rather, why can’t the naturalist explain their behavior in these terms?

      I think we’re not connecting somewhere on the question about how objective morality relates to the problem of evil. In the list I gave of the ways God has revealed his moral character to us, the 3rd one was the “moral law that he has written on the hearts of men”. Does this not fulfill the role of “something we all know something about”? Are you rejecting that this is one of the ways God has revealed his moral character? If we do not accept that this is one of the ways that God has revealed his moral character, then how does objective morality do anything to help us identify God’s moral character?

      The problem for logical positivists and most modern naturalists … is that logic tells us that if naturalism is true and we are the product of evolution and natural selection alone, then those behaviours will be justified sometimes if they make it more likely our genes will survive.

      As I read it, this statement infers that the naturalist should judge the goodness of every act by how well it aids in passing on genes. No offense, but that’s an absurd characterization. Our moral intuition is what it is. Even if it is the result of evolution and selective pressures, that does not mean that we dismiss it and override our intuitive moral judgments with an analysis of the selective advantage. Sorry if I misunderstood, but that’s how I read it.

      When I look at your reasons for believing in objective morality, it seems to all boil down to the observation of widespread agreement, particularly on those things which evoke the strongest response. Why is objective morality a better explanation for this than common heritage?

      • Hi Travis thanks, I’ll make a comment on the Where I Am page when I can.

        “Why can’t it be that what you perceive as people acting as if there is objective morality is actually people deeply valuing their moral judgment and wanting others to share in their perspective? Or rather, why can’t the naturalist explain their behavior in these terms?”

        Of course the naturalist can use that explanation, the question is whether it “works” in the argument. It is generally best to test this by setting out the argument like this:

        1. God is defined as an all-powerful morally perfect creator being.
        2. The world contains much suffering.
        3. My moral judgment is that suffering is morally ‘bad’.
        4. Thus allowing suffering is contrary to God’s moral goodness.
        5. Therefore, if God existed, he wouldn’t allow suffering.
        6. Therefore God as defined doesn’t exist.

        Clearly, this argument is questionable at #3 and #4. Why should anyone else accept my moral judgment? (Hitler and Al Qaeda seem to have different views to mine!) And why should I believe God does?

        So this argument, based on individual moral judgment seems to me to be quite weak.

        “God has revealed his moral character to us, the 3rd one was the “moral law that he has written on the hearts of men”. Does this not fulfill the role of “something we all know something about”? Are you rejecting that this is one of the ways God has revealed his moral character? If we do not accept that this is one of the ways that God has revealed his moral character, then how does objective morality do anything to help us identify God’s moral character?”

        If the argument based on individual moral judgment is weak, this is an interesting alternative – you have definitely forced me to think a little deeper. I think you make some good points, but I don’t think they change my overall conclusion. Again, lets set out the argument:

        1. God is defined as an all-powerful morally perfect creator being.
        2. The world contains much suffering.
        3. We know suffering is morally ‘bad’ because it is contrary to God’s revealed moral goodness in the moral law as written in the hearts of humanity.
        4. Therefore, if God existed, he wouldn’t allow suffering.
        5. Therefore God as defined doesn’t exist.

        Now this clearly is a stronger argument, but I still think #3 is questionable and doesn’t lead to #4.

        Firstly, the revealed moral law says it is wrong to hurt others, but it doesn’t actually say that suffering is bad in quite the same way – in some traditions suffering is good if it is endured patiently.

        Secondly God is so far ‘above’ us (like Stephen Hawking’s understanding of theoretical physics is so far above mine) that we can only presume to understand very little of it. We know what has been revealed to humans to direct our behaviour, but there may be much more that we don’t know.

        For example, if a child scrapes their knee while playing with the family dog, the mother knows that infection is possible, so she puts some antiseptic ointment on the wound. This stings, and it feels like mum is inflicting pain, yet we know it is for the best. God may well be in the same position – how could we possibly know? This is somewhat akin to the old “free will defence”, and I think it works much better with #3 based on God’s revealed will for us than with the normal #3 based on objective morality. For if it is objectively true (like 1 + 1 = 2) then it is harder to justify God doing any differently, whereas if it is just God’s revealed will for humans we can more easily say God is not bound to prevent things from happening even if he tells us we shouldn’t do them ourselves. Allowance is not the same as actively doing (at least not necessarily).

        So I still agree that the argument from suffering and evil makes it harder to believe in God, but I don’t think your variation makes it stronger.

        “Even if it is the result of evolution and selective pressures, that does not mean that we dismiss it and override our intuitive moral judgments with an analysis of the selective advantage.”

        The test of moral intuitions and beliefs is when we don’t want to obey. It is easy to avoid evil if we are not tempted. For example, I am not tempted to drink to excess because I don’t like the taste, so there’s no real ethical test for me. But an alcoholic who loves his beer, but knows it is doing harm to his family, faces a genuine ethical test.

        So if your moral intuitions make you less likely to want to kill someone you disagree with, then you don’t face a moral dilemma at all – you are free to do what you want to do. But a person brought up on hatred of another group of people (as happens in many countries colonised in the 18th and 19th centuries by western countries, for example, or a Palestinian brought up to hate Jews, or an Al Qaeda suicide bomber brought up to think USA is the great Satan) they face moral dilemmas if they have the opportunity and the wish to kill a westerner, but their moral code tells them killing is wrong.

        A person who can say to them that killing is really wrong, and perhaps one who can support it with a statement from the person’s scriptures (say the Quran) has a strong and objective case, but if you say “it is against my moral intuitions” how convincing do you think you will be?

        So I think it is quite clear that when we want to apply our ethics to real situations where ethics may make the difference between what a person naturally would like to do and what they believe is right, an objective ethic will be far stronger and more effectives than a subjective moral intuition, especially to someone who doesn’t share your moral intuitions.

        “When I look at your reasons for believing in objective morality, it seems to all boil down to the observation of widespread agreement, particularly on those things which evoke the strongest response. Why is objective morality a better explanation for this than common heritage?”

        This follows from the above. I don’t think objective morality is necessarily a better explanation of how we feel. I think personal choice or natural selection or common heritage can easily explain how we all think. But if we expect anyone else to abide by the same ethic, all those explanations are pretty useless – those who agree agree, and those who don’t agree don’t. And that’s when we need a real objective ethic rather than just a subjective intuition.

        The universal declaration of human rights is a good example. Unless it is really true, why should anyone else abide by it?

        In summary, I think naturalist explanations of ethics only really explain how and why we feel certain things are right and wrong, they don’t even to begin to explain how and why they actually are right and wrong in the way that the universal declaration of human rights claims.

        Thanks for the opportunity to discuss amicably and constructively. I’m sorry my replies are long, but these are big issues.

    • Eric,
      Thanks for the clarifications. Your second description of the argument seems like a fair representation of what I was trying to communicate with the post – though I suggested that we also know God’s moral character through direct communication (e.g., the ten commandments, sermon on the mount) and in rules of thumb (e.g., golden rule). Collectively it seems that there is a pretty substantial data set from which we are supposed to understand God’s moral character, though it is certainly possible that we simply don’t see the whole picture, as you have noted.

      So I still agree that the argument from suffering and evil makes it harder to believe in God, but I don’t think your variation makes it stronger.

      I never intended that I was in some way modifying the argument in the problem of evil to make it stronger. I was simply trying to show that it can’t be deemed inconsistent and turned into evidence for God in the way that some have proposed.

      an objective ethic will be far stronger and more effectives than a subjective moral intuition

      Is it? To what do you appeal when somebody either does not believe in objective morality or does believe in objective morality but claims that it has different properties than what you think? Simply asserting that they’re wrong doesn’t seem to be very effective. Rather, it seems to me that we are most likely to be effective at reaching agreement if we allow that we don’t know where the common ground lies and seek it out. For example, most wrongs arise when somebody treats a person or group differently than they would treat themselves or their loved ones. That seems like a pretty good starting point for many discussions.

      I think naturalist explanations of ethics only really explain how and why we feel certain things are right and wrong, they don’t even to begin to explain how and why they actually are right and wrong in the way that the universal declaration of human rights claims.

      I’m being redundant here, but why require that things actually be right and wrong? As noted above, I’m not sure I see how it improves the situation. Here’s one way to think about it. Suppose everybody in the world agrees that there is one objective moral standard, but we still find that there are thousands of different claims about what that standard is. Now what?

      • “Collectively it seems that there is a pretty substantial data set from which we are supposed to understand God’s moral character, though it is certainly possible that we simply don’t see the whole picture, as you have noted.”
        My point is also that we know more of God’s revealed ethics than we do about his larger purposes, so we cannot know what other principles are involved. I think every step away from objective ethics makes it harder to assess what God is up to.

        “Is it? To what do you appeal when somebody either does not believe in objective morality or does believe in objective morality but claims that it has different properties than what you think? Simply asserting that they’re wrong doesn’t seem to be very effective. Rather, it seems to me that we are most likely to be effective at reaching agreement if we allow that we don’t know where the common ground lies and seek it out. For example, most wrongs arise when somebody treats a person or group differently than they would treat themselves or their loved ones. That seems like a pretty good starting point for many discussions.”
        I think this is a very “well-off western liberal” view – we’d like to think that is what it would be like, but I think reality is different. Many people don’t discuss these things – they act, often violently. I don’t think appealing to any morality works all that well in a personal situation – people generally have already made their minds up. But a society informed by an objective ethic has a greater incentive to develop a moral culture than one based on subjective ethics.

        I just came across today a report on the Science on Religion website suggesting that in coercive religious societies, people are not very inclined to behave ethically whether they actually believe or not, but in voluntarily religious societies, religious people behave significantly more ethically than do non-believers. I’m not suggesting this proves my point, but it is at least consistent with it.

        ” Suppose everybody in the world agrees that there is one objective moral standard, but we still find that there are thousands of different claims about what that standard is. Now what?”
        Since most moral systems have a lot in common, things would improve a lot. It would tend to confirm to me that there is truly a God and truly an objective ethic (which must be based on motives, not just legalistic conformity), but we humans have a faulty ethical awareness system and we have got a lot right but different societies have got some things twisted.

    • Eric,
      I think we’re talking past each other as to how objective morality relates to the problem of evil. I fail to see how someone’s personal view of moral ontology impacts their assessment of a worldview which claims that one of the ways that we know God’s moral character is by our moral sense, which is equivalent to the way that we would know an objective moral standard. It may not be worth further discussion though because now I feel like I’m just repeating things I’ve already said.

      I think this is a very “well-off western liberal” view – we’d like to think that is what it would be like, but I think reality is different.

      You may be right. I was certainly approaching this from a philosophical perspective rather than a societal perspective. That said, I have a very hard time accepting this argument as a way of life. As I understand it, it amounts to me convincing myself to pragmatically accept the existence of objective morality simply because I want the everybody else to do the same, which I ultimately want because this then seems to result in the most ethical society. It feels intellectually dishonest, particularly if I have doubts about the validity of moral realism. Not to mention the fact that I then have to figure out which moral code is correct, which brings us to the next topic.

      It would tend to confirm to me that there is truly a God and truly an objective ethic … but we humans have a faulty ethical awareness system and we have got a lot right but different societies have got some things twisted.

      OK. Now how do you determine the true objective ethic and then convince the societies which had “got some things twisted” to agree with you?

      • Hi Travis, I’m sorry if this is frustrating and you feel we are not connecting. I think I agree, for I have pondered your first paragraph over and over again and I can’t really understand what you are saying. But I think I can see one possible cause of confusion ….

        I think there are two separate issues here. (1) Whether the argument from evil depends on objective ethics to be most successful. (2) Whether having an objective ethic makes any difference in practice – i.e. whether we can know or implement such an ethic.

        Re (1), I have recognised that it is possible to base the argument from evil on inconsistencies in God’s character rather than objective ethics, but I think it doesn’t strengthen the argument. I don’t think I, as a defender of God’s existence and good character, have to answer questions about objective ethics in this argument, That is up to the proponent of the argument. If the unbeliever wants to justify that aspects of the world are really evil, that is up to them. I am prepared to agree with them about suffering being evil, but I don’t have to argue that it is objectively evil – they have to.

        Re (2) I don’t think this is important for the argument from evil, I have simply answered some of your questions. I agree that saying there are objective ethics doesn’t necessarily show what those ethics are, but it is a step along the way – but not relevant to the argument from evil.

        Does all that make sense? Now briefly to your questions and comments ….

        “As I understand it, it amounts to me convincing myself to pragmatically accept the existence of objective morality simply because I want the everybody else to do the same, which I ultimately want because this then seems to result in the most ethical society. It feels intellectually dishonest, particularly if I have doubts about the validity of moral realism.”

        No, I don’t expect anything of you. I was just pointing out that believing simple discussion would address a situation where someone disagrees with you about ethics was somewhat idealistic rather than realistic. Whether my comments suggest you should change your views is up to you. But as above, I think it has no bearing on the argument from evil.

        “Now how do you determine the true objective ethic and then convince the societies which had “got some things twisted” to agree with you?”

        I have said how I determine what I think is the true objective ethic – from the teachings of Jesus – but I don’t expect everyone else to agree! I think the only way people will agree with me is if they too decide to follow Jesus. But again, I don’t think this has bearing on the argument from evil.

        I am happy to finish off this discussion if you prefer, but I hope it is at least clear that I think whether objective ethics exist and are important in the argument from evil is a separate question from how we might determine such ethics. Thanks

    • Eric,
      I assumed all along that there were two somewhat distinct topics in our discussion. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

      Re (1) “Whether the argument from evil depends on objective ethics to be most successful”, let me take one more shot at a clarification. The scenario I outlined in the post was directed specifically toward Christian theism. In Christian theism, we are said to have been endowed with a moral sense that gives us an understanding of God’s moral character (Romans 2:13-15). Even if morality actually isn’t a distinct, objective “thing”, this endowment looks, smells and tastes just like objective morality would if it exists. This endowment, combined with God’s revealed moral character, gives us everything we claim to know about his moral character. Under the Christian worldview, this moral epistemology is true regardless of whether or not there is a real, objective morality. As such, the force of the argument from evil is not dependent on objective morality.

      Re (2) “Whether having an objective ethic makes any difference in practice – i.e. whether we can know or implement such an ethic”; I had a slightly different take on the goal of this discussion. In the first comment you said that we can know something about objective morality and I simply wanted to follow that trail to see how it was that you felt that we could know that objective morality is real. Eventually I took your responses to imply an acceptance of objective morality on the pragmatic justification that this acceptance is effective at promoting ethical behavior. You said “I don’t think objective morality is necessarily a better explanation of how we feel. I think personal choice or natural selection or common heritage can easily explain how we all think. But if we expect anyone else to abide by the same ethic, all those explanations are pretty useless – those who agree agree, and those who don’t agree don’t. And that’s when we need a real objective ethic rather than just a subjective intuition.”

      I still question whether, philosophically, acceptance of a real objective ethic is the superior way to reach moral agreement but I do accept the possibility that society as a whole may be better off if we collectively agree that there is an objective moral standard that we should all adhere to. Likewise, a society will see a remarkable increase in Leprechaun sightings if they come to believe that Leprechaun’s actually exist but this does not validate their existence. It is a giant leap to go from acknowledging that a societal acceptance of objective morality could have positive results to accepting that an objective moral standard is a real, independent thing that is not simply a product of our humanity. Do you have other reasons for making that leap?

      • Hi Travis, thanks again for your explanations. I think I do understand your point on the argument for evil and objective morality, and I don’t even disagree. My point wasn’t that the argument wasn’t dependent on objective morality, but that one could formulate it both ways – and I thought the one not based on objective morality had a significant drawback.

        My brief explanation (to parallel yours) is that objective morality is something quite definite, and if we say suffering is objectively “bad”, we can easily agree and the argument can proceed. But the full character and purposes of God are very much out of our understanding, so an argument based on how God “ought” to behave is very nebulous compared to one based on objective morality.

        So I’m fine with your version of the argument, I appreciate the thought that led to it. I just think in the end it’s based on premises that are very much harder to justify. (But of course I also appreciate that it doesn’t suffer from the counter of where does our sense of right and wrong come from.)

        My first comment on objective morality was: “Objective morality is an absolute which we can believe we know something about.” I didn’t infer that we knew all about it or that we would agree on what it was. But we can surely agree that if there is objective morality, some of the suffering experienced by people is truly “bad”.

        I don’t think we should believe in objective morality because it might promote better behaviour, and I’m sorry if i gave that impression. I was just answering your questions and I didn’t think I was inferring that. I was rather saying that there are situations when we can see that an objective ethic would help – either philosophically or practically. I guess it’s a bit like a person going for a job interview realising he needed a better educational qualification – it doesn’t make him actually have one, but it shows why it would be good.

        I don’t think I am making a leap about objective ethics. But I don’t base my views as you suggest, on societal acceptance. I think there are two reasons why we should accept there is objective ethics.

        (1) Most of us can’t help thinking that way. We can either say it’s all an evolutionary byproduct and deconstruct ethics to be what we don’t experience (I think that is an enormous leap!), or we can accept that our experience as human beings is telling us something real. (I see this as part of a larger dichotomy between naturalist reductionism and human experience of consciousness, free will, rationality, love, etc. I think it is a choice between the hard reductionism of philosophers and scientists like Alex Rosenberg, Jerry Coyne, Francis Crick, etc, who have all made statements (which seem to logically follow from naturalism) that everything can be reduced to fundamental particles, and our selves, our emotions, our ethics, our free will, etc, are all illusions, and the more commonsense experience of human beings that these things are real. Here are a few quotes:

        Francis Crick (atheist): “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

        Alex Rosenberg (atheist): What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. Is there free will? Not a chance! What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. … We need to face the fact that nihilism is true.”

        John Polkinghorne (christian): “There is an implausibility in those who seek to reduce parts of [our] experience to the status of epiphenomenal, an implausibility repeatedly exemplified by our inability outside our studies to live other than as people endowed with free agency and reason.”

        Philosopher Paul Draper (agnostic) says: “For example, on theism one would expect the existence of things like consciousness, free will, and objective morality. Their existence is very surprising, however, on naturalism, which is why many naturalists deny that these things are real.”

        (2) As a christian, I believe Jesus gave us an objective ethic, and we all should follow what he says. But of course I understand not everyone believes the same.

        So, do you think we now understand each other, even though obviously we don’t agree?

    • Hi Eric,

      My point wasn’t that the argument wasn’t dependent on objective morality

      I understand. This is why my attempt at a clarification concluded with the force of the argument from evil is not dependent on objective morality”. I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

      Most of us can’t help thinking that way. We can either say it’s all an evolutionary byproduct and deconstruct ethics to be what we don’t experience (I think that is an enormous leap!), or we can accept that our experience as human beings is telling us something real.

      I’m with you. I’m just not sure why we should step beyond those very real feelings to posit the existence of something external. I posed a question elsewhere and I would be interested in your answer. Can you identify a substantive difference between the feelings and compulsions experienced by the following two persons?
      * Person A believes that X is truly wrong and that it is extremely important for everybody to do what is right
      * Person B highly values the absence of X and strongly desires that everybody else share their valuation

      I have a hard time distinguishing between the way those two people would feel and that makes me think that the desire to sustain particular definitions of right and wrong does not necessarily count as evidence for the truth of moral realism. Furthermore, I think that the description given for Person B can better explain some data. For example, though I considered pedophilia wrong before, the sense of wrongness is much stronger now that I have kids of my own. My valuations have changed and this correlates with changes in my moral sense. Our moral sense seems to have an intrinsic connection with our emotions. It’s strength and direction is guided not by some external ethic that remains constant but rather by our internal state. I know that many people don’t think that this counts against the prospect of an objective ethic but I think that it does favor the possibility that our moral sense is in some way derived from our valuations.

      As a christian, I believe Jesus gave us an objective ethic … But of course I understand not everyone believes the same.

      Right, so this isn’t evidence of objective morality for anybody except those who have adopted the Christian worldview.

      So, do you think we now understand each other, even though obviously we don’t agree?

      We’re closer. I still don’t understand why a person’s view on objective morality makes a difference to the strength of the problem of evil but I’m not sure its worth going in circles anymore on that one.

  2. Hi Travis, yes, I,m happy to leave the issue of objective morality and the argument from evil. I have found it helpful. I think we may understand each other better, but simply disagree. It happens.

    “I’m just not sure why we should step beyond those very real feelings to posit the existence of something external.”
    I don’t think we have to posit the existence of an external being – that question was on the table at the start. Rather, I think we look to see if things like morality, consciousness, free will, etc, if objectively real, tell us anything about the world, including the question of God. Or, more strictly, tell us that naturalism is deficient. I think they do tell us that. But once we say naturalism is deficient, what do we replace it with? Whatever we may call it, it must be something like dualism, or supernaturalism, or something. And those things start to look like theism (to me) when examined.

    So in practical terms, it’s either naturalism, determinism, subjective ethics, etc, leading to a reductionist view of humanity, or else its some form of theism. Now I know there are many other theoretical possibilities, but they don’t seem to cut it (again my opinion – do you think other alternatives are viable?)

    “Can you identify a substantive difference between the feelings and compulsions experienced by the following two persons?”
    I’m not sure – I think A might believe more strongly – but this is a question of human emotions and motivations, which can be very fickle, as your example shows. The important thing is an objective question about reality – whether ethics could truly be true if the world was as naturalism says it is. So regardless of how strongly you felt once and now feel about pedophilia, is it really true that pedophilia is “bad”?

    “My valuations have changed and this correlates with changes in my moral sense. ….. I think that it does favor the possibility that our moral sense is in some way derived from our valuations.”
    Again, I suggest it isn’t important how we arrived at our moral sense, the question I am raising is – is our moral sense true when it makes the judgment that pedophilia is bad? How we arrive at a conclusion is interesting, and sometimes important, but the most important thing is whether our conclusions is right.

    I look at it this way (and I think I have said this before). If our moral sense arose out of natural selection or our own experience alone then we don’t need ethics (what we ought to do), we just do what comes naturally. And we can have little to say to someone who has a different moral sense and profits from it. (A rapacious dictator who takes all the money and women he wants will probably ensure the propagation of his genes and his own personal happiness, so why shouldn’t he behave that way?) But if we want to be able to say the pedophile, and Adolf Hitler, and a thrill killer, etc, are really wrong (not just offensive to my moral sense), then we need some basis for saying that.

    It is an age-old problem, and the way many naturalists answer it is to deny objective morality, or even any morality at all. I think they can’t really live that way, and certainly society can’t function that way, but clearly if they cannot accept the possibility of God-belief, and they agree with the logic I have suggested here, this is the only option left for them. I think their hearts must tell them every day that their heads are wrong on this one, but they seem to have firmly decided that head rules over heart every time.

    • Hi Eric,
      I fear I may not be all that good at clearly communicating my thoughts. My comment about whether we should “step beyond those very real feelings to posit the existence of something external” was with regard to moral realism, not God. The remainder was intended to follow-on from that.

      Again, I suggest it isn’t important how we arrived at our moral sense, the question I am raising is – is our moral sense true … the most important thing is whether our conclusion is right

      Asking whether our moral sense is true or right pre-supposes moral realism. The question I’m raising is whether we should think that some external standard exists in the first place. The point of the thought experiment with Person A and Person B was to examine whether our moral epistemology actually informs whether moral truths exist. I’m not sure it does. The moral experience of Person A and Person B seem nearly indistinguishable, yet objectivity is only present in A.

      And we can have little to say to someone who has a different moral sense and profits from it.

      I see this a lot and I don’t understand it. Why does moral anti-realism necessitate a “doormat” approach to moral discourse? I think that the opposite is true. Belief in an objective standard stifles discourse because things are simply right or wrong and that’s just how it is. Two moral realists with opposing views seem to be stuck. The anti-realist, however, is free to argue their position any number of ways; appealing to personal values, emotions, consequences, etc…

      • Hi Travis

        “Asking whether our moral sense is true or right pre-supposes moral realism.”
        I’m sorry, I don’t see this at all. I see it is the same as asking if moral realism is true. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: “Moral realists are those who think that …. moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right. Moreover, they hold, at least some moral claims actually are true.”

        “The question I’m raising is whether we should think that some external standard exists in the first place.”
        We can agree here. That is the question I am considering too.

        “The moral experience of Person A and Person B seem nearly indistinguishable, yet objectivity is only present in A.”
        But how a person experiences something or arrives at a conclusion will not necessarily tell us if their conclusion is true. Two people can feel scared in exactly the same way of a similar noise in the dark, but in one case the noise really could be a burglar in the house, in the other case it may actually be the timber frame expanding or contracting. The feelings are the same but the truth is different.

        “I see this a lot and I don’t understand it. Why does moral anti-realism necessitate a “doormat” approach to moral discourse?”
        Of course we can say all sorts of stuff – being silly now, but we could recite the complete works of Shakespeare I guess – but what I meant (sorry if I wasn’t clear enough) was that we have nothing that can be meaningful to someone whose subjective moral sense is different to ours, and might thereby make them think differently. If they persist in saying “so what, it’s all subjective and this is what I subjectively think”, what can we say?I can’t even think they are wrong in any objective sense (like you and I can believe each other is wrong about God), only that our moral sense is different to theirs. If we both believed in objective ethics, we would then have the option of arguing why my objective ethic is more true than theirs.

    • Hi Eric,
      Thanks for keeping this discussion running. I’ve been exploring the various moral frameworks and this is a helpful exercise.

      But how a person experiences something or arrives at a conclusion will not necessarily tell us if their conclusion is true.

      I agree, but ultimately we are still reliant on our experience to inform our determination of truth. As far as I can tell, the part of our moral experience which pushes us toward moral realism is our compulsion to resist saying that it is OK for people to engage in certain activities. Do you agree, or is there something else which you think serves as evidence of moral realism?

      we have nothing that can be meaningful to someone whose subjective moral sense is different to ours, and might thereby make them think differently. If they persist in saying “so what, it’s all subjective and this is what I subjectively think”, what can we say?

      And therein lies the challenge of moral discourse; finding the common ground. It’s not easy and sometimes it seems to go nowhere but we still engage in discourse to try and convince others of our view (or, if we’re open-minded enough, to consider changing our own view). This kind of philosophical examination into why we hold certain moral judgments seems like a worthwhile exercise and if it is done well it can and does lead to changes in people’s judgment; it has for me.

      If we both believed in objective ethics, we would then have the option of arguing why my objective ethic is more true than theirs.

      What does that look like? How do you argue for one objective ethic over another?

  3. Hi Travis, I’m glad you are still finding this discussion useful, as I am.

    “the part of our moral experience which pushes us toward moral realism is our compulsion to resist saying that it is OK for people to engage in certain activities.”

    In the old days, morality was called “practical reason”, I guess because it was using our brains in a way that was rational but not amenable to logic alone. I can feel confident that 3×4 = 6×2, and I can logically show that this is true. But when I feel confident that pedophilia is wrong, I cannot prove it logically. So I think what you say is true, but slightly understated. I think we don’t just feel a compulsion to resist accepting some practices, but we really know some things are wrong. (Of course there are always exceptions, just as some people are born with no legs, but they are exceptions.) Perhaps that is what you meant, but I feel a stronger statement is warranted.

    “This kind of philosophical examination into why we hold certain moral judgments seems like a worthwhile exercise and if it is done well it can and does lead to changes in people’s judgment; it has for me.”

    Yes I agree. In fact I have just came across on my blog a guy doing a PhD in moral philosophy (his topic is the ethics of forgiveness). We have corresponded briefly, and I think his work should be very useful. My point was that if ethics are just subjective, then the discussion is not all that dissimilar to discussing which football team we each follow or which band we like best – interesting but no real answers because we probably have no common basis. Two atheists could discuss, but if one subjectively holds to utilitarianism while one is a hedonist, they will be unlikely to agree on much of importance.

    Now certainly in this pluralist world, we need to discuss what will work to make our society one we can all live in. But if I hate some minority group, I may not want that at all, and who is to say I’m wrong? Christians, or perhaps so-called christians, have been known to persecute each other, unbelievers, homosexuals, etc, contrary to the teachings of Jesus. I see some similar growing intolerance in the other direction among some of the leading atheists – e.g. religious believers have mental illnesses that should be treated, religious people shouldn’t be free to inculcate belief in their children, religious believers should not be allowed to be scientists, etc. What is to stop persecution if atheists become the majority?

    Muslims are currently exhibiting many of the same behaviours, and Muslim-majority countries enshrine abhorrent behaviours (to us) in law. How can we criticise? How can the minorities who are persecuted and even killed criticise?

    So how can we promulgate the charter of human rights unless we all believe such rights really apply? How can we even discuss ethics if we have no common basis across these divides?

    “What does that look like? How do you argue for one objective ethic over another?”

    This is an interesting question, for if I argue that my ethic is “better” than yours, I have assumed an ethic by which I judge both our ethics. This is clearly circular or self-defeating.

    I think the reality is that there is only one ethic, and the differences are detail. We mostly all know what is right in principle, as I said before, and arguments are really about how to apply that ethic, or different emphases, or how to balance two different and sometime conflicting ethical “rules”. So if I discuss with a Muslim, I can attempt to show him that certain behaviours (e.g. stoning an apostate) is contrary to the universal ethic we all instinctively know. I would try to find somewhere in the Quran that expressed this ethic, and work from there.

    But a problem arises if the other person doesn’t recognise the universal ethic, or refuses to recognise in their thinking what they feel in their heart – or even “harden” their heart so they no longer recognise the universal ethic. There is no basis to say one thing is “better” than the other.

    So may I ask you a question please? Where is your thinking at? Are you are moral realist or not? Do you think torture and rape and pedophilia are really wrong, or is that just convention? How would you justify the universal declaration of human rights?

    Thanks again.

    • Eric,
      You said:

      I can feel confident that 3×4 = 6×2, and I can logically show that this is true. But when I feel confident that pedophilia is wrong, I cannot prove it logically. So I think what you say is true, but slightly understated. I think we don’t just feel a compulsion to resist accepting some practices, but we really know some things are wrong.

      I think this analogy could be useful for helping me clarify what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to get at a qualitative difference in the way we “know” whether something is wrong. If I say that 3×4 = 6×2 and then somebody questions whether I am correct, I will think about it and my confidence in my claim will grow as I reaffirm my answer and fail to find any errors in my reasoning. In the end I have an increased sense of correctness about my claim. However, if I say that pedophilia is wrong and then somebody questions whether I am correct, this will elicit an emotional response. My consideration of the possibility that such an activity might be OK will evoke anger, hatred and disgust. Contemplation on this matter does not increase my sense of correctness but rather it increases my emotional investment. I think this may be a clue into the nature of the moral claim. When I look for a description of how we act as if moral realism is true, I think that “a compulsion to resist saying that certain activities are OK” may be a more apt account than “a confidence that certain activities are truly wrong”.

      My point was that if ethics are just subjective, then the discussion is not all that dissimilar to discussing which football team we each follow or which band we like best – interesting but no real answers because we probably have no common basis.

      I think this understates the incredible value we place on many things (especially our feelings) and the potential of moral discourse to draw upon a large body of valuations that are often held in common. In fact, I think that in practice we can usually reduce an argument down to a value that can be agreed upon. Perhaps I’m being idealistic and am naive of the foundational values of people who are very different from me, but if that’s the case then the primary evidence for a universal ethic also goes out the window.

      How can we criticise? How can the minorities who are persecuted and even killed criticise?

      I think there are many options. For example, you can try to find parallels or analogies which are judged differently by the antagonists and try to expose an inconsistency in their judgment.

      But a problem arises if the other person doesn’t recognise the universal ethic, or refuses to recognise in their thinking what they feel in their heart – or even “harden” their heart so they no longer recognise the universal ethic. There is no basis to say one thing is “better” than the other.

      Even worse, what if the other person genuinely thinks that you are the one who doesn’t recognize the universal ethic, or is ignoring your heart, or has hardened your heart? How can you possibly tell who is right? It seems that without the ability to appeal to anything other than the ethic itself the discussion has reached an impasse. I’m inclined to think that if moral realism is true then this scenario is not so uncommon.

      Where is your thinking at? Are you are moral realist or not?

      I’m definitely in an exploratory / learning stage and not tied to any particular moral framework. That said, I think I am leaning toward some form of moral anti-realism.

      Do you think torture and rape and pedophilia are really wrong, or is that just convention?

      I think they are wrong and am deeply concerned that others think them wrong as well. To say that they are “really wrong” presumes moral realism, which is still an open question to me.

      How would you justify the universal declaration of human rights?

      Through reciprocity and something like social contract theory. I particularly like Rawls’ formulation with the hypothetical original position.

  4. Hi Travis,

    “However, if I say that pedophilia is wrong and then somebody questions whether I am correct, this will elicit an emotional response.”

    I think that may be the only response available to someone who believes ethics is subjective, but because I believe in objective ethics, I will have that response plus my moral reasoning which tells me that this is not in accordance with “do as you would be done by” or “love your neighbour as yourself”, which are expressions of the basic objective ethic, in my view. So I have two reasons rather than just one.

    But more to the point, sometimes my emotions will work against objective ethics. For example, “love your neighbour as yourself” requires that I forgive rather than hold a grudge, even though my emotions will likely be working against that. Likewise altruism. True story: In WW2 the guards in a prison camp chose people at random top be left to die without food or water in a dark underground cell. A polish man, married with a young child was chosen and cried out in despair. A Catholic priest volunteered to take his place, was accepted and left to die with the others, He comforted them all and was the last to die. The Polish man came to Australia and only recently died (if I remember correctly). The priest made an altruistic choice in accord with love your neighbour, but his emotions and his sense of self preservation must have cried out to stay silent.

    I think there are many examples like this, and those are the ones that are telling for objective ethics.

    “I think this understates the incredible value we place on many things (especially our feelings) and the potential of moral discourse to draw upon a large body of valuations that are often held in common.”

    Yes of course it does, I was exaggerating to make a point. But I think it is still true that no matter how much two people agree, they haven’t arrived at anything true, just a subjective agreement. Remember the main reason we are discussing this isn’t because we disagree about what will work best in society (I reckon if we listed 20 ethical questions relating to society, you and I would agree on most), but whether objective mortality tells us something about reality.

    ” you can try to find parallels or analogies which are judged differently by the antagonists and try to expose an inconsistency in their judgment.”

    Yes you can, but I think this ignores the fact that we instinctively know that many things are right or wrong. It takes a higher commitment (to religion, politics, science, greed, naturalism, etc) to cause us to ignore what deep down we know. But I think I am repeating myself here, I’m sorry.

    “How can you possibly tell who is right? It seems that without the ability to appeal to anything other than the ethic itself the discussion has reached an impasse.”

    I think that’s right. There’s no way to guarantee agreement. But I think two moral realists who agree are stronger than two non-realists.

    “Through reciprocity and something like social contract theory. I particularly like Rawls’ formulation with the hypothetical original position.”

    That looks interesting.

    • Eric,

      sometimes my emotions will work against objective ethics

      I’m not convinced that what you’re calling “moral reasoning” isn’t ultimately driven by feeling. For example, in the case of forgiveness versus holding a grudge, it may be correct to say that there are competing interests but is choosing to forgive really just a calculated decision? I think not. I think that the feelings we anticipate are highly influential. We anticipate “feeling bad”, or guilty, or remorseful if we act in a way that will harm our relationship and we anticipate similar feelings simply by acting contrary to our moral intuition – regardless of how we think that intuition was obtained in the first place. Is it our reasoning about the moral judgment that drives our action, or is it the anticipation of the feelings associated with the action? I suspect that the latter may be dominant. The infamous trolley problem seems to support this.

      A similar situation arises with altruism and the example of the priest. To suggest that these things are done to the exclusion of our emotions completely ignores the power of empathy. Additionally, just as we anticipate “feeling bad” in the previous example, we also anticipate “feeling good” simply by acting in accordance with our moral intuition. Our moral faculties seem to include an internal reward and punishment system that pays with feelings. The distinction of “moral reasoning” is not at all clear to me, unless somebody is operating in a truly utilitarian sense with well defined valuations for a cost/benefit analysis.

      [moral discourse without realism won’t] arrive at anything true, just a subjective agreement.

      The inference here is that moral realism is assumed to be a superior goal. Why is it better to arrive at a moral truth than simply a moral agreement?

      It takes a higher commitment (to religion, politics, science, greed, naturalism, etc) to cause us to ignore what deep down we know

      So do you think it is impossible for two people to disagree and for both parties to genuinely think that it is the other who is ignoring “what deep down we know”? Is it always the case that somebody is betraying their conscience? If you’re anything like me, you probably think that 99% of the time you are not betraying your conscience when disagreeing with a moral claim. If this perspective is even remotely representative of everybody else, then we clearly have a situation where conflicting parties are genuinely following what “deep down we know” even when they disagree.

  5. Hi Travis,

    “I’m not convinced that what you’re calling “moral reasoning” isn’t ultimately driven by feeling. For example, in the case of forgiveness versus holding a grudge, it may be correct to say that there are competing interests but is choosing to forgive really just a calculated decision?”

    Sometimes it is driven by feeling, but I don’t think very often that feeling is alone. My main motivation in ethics is to follow Jesus. Sounds pious or corny I know, but it’s true.

    I value forgiveness because he told me to, and so I try to go out of my way to be forgiving even when I don’t feel like it.

    I was conscripted into the Australian army during the Vietnam war. I went in believing in the war on Communism, I came out virtually a pacifist. The experience of the army (I didn’t go to Vietnam) was a factor, but the thing that really cemented the belief in me was that Jesus said to love our enemies and turn the other cheek.

    I talk a lot to unbelievers on the web, and many of them are very rude to me. There are many occasions when I feel upset at what I feel is unfair treatment, and angry that people can so deliberately ignore and distort scientific or historical evidence because they don’t want there to even be a glimmer of a reason why God might possibly be there – then accuse me of the very same thing when I try very hard to be honest. I am often tempted to tell a person what I think of them, but I don’t even though I feel I would be justified and would feel better, because the New Testament teaches me to treat people lovingly. And so often I just walk away or ignore the provocations – but I certainly don’t feel like it, it takes discipline.

    I think these and many other examples show that, for me at least, emotions are a poor guide to ethical behaviour. They are useful when they reinforce what I believe is true, but the objective ethic of “love your neighbour as yourself” is what gets me through.

    To help clarify our views here, may I ask you please to better define what you mean when you say moral reasoning is possibly “ultimately driven by feeling” and you know some things are wrong because they “evoke anger, hatred and disgust”?

    1. Do you think anger, hatred and disgust are really good guides to what is “right” or just somewhat helpful?
    2. How would you know if they were a good guide in a particular case?
    3. How would you distinguish between your own selfish wishes and what is “right”, or is this distinction illusory?

    ” Why is it better to arrive at a moral truth than simply a moral agreement?”

    Because two people, or a group, can often be wrong. If they have similar backgrounds and and similar objectives, they easily reinforce each other in wrong. Look at Nazi Germany, or Islamic Jihad, or the US ‘War on Terror’, etc. Morality is meant to check our worst impulses.

    “So do you think it is impossible for two people to disagree and for both parties to genuinely think that it is the other who is ignoring “what deep down we know”? ….. we clearly have a situation where conflicting parties are genuinely following what “deep down we know” even when they disagree”

    I think I may be losing track of where this part of the discussion is going, but no I don’t that is at all impossible and I don’t know how we got there. I think we learn to disregard our conscience, but if pressed we may still feel conscience stricken. For example, Jesus told us to live simply and be wary of wealth, and it is clear that the distribution of wealth is very unequal and many people would benefit if christians in the rich west would share really sacrificially. I know that and I have moved some way towards it, but really I could do more. I have to some degree bludgeoned my conscience into submission. Like I said, religion, politics, greed, comfort, atheism, science, worthy causes, and many other isms can help us blunt our conscience. But I think discussion will do little to change things unless people believe what they conclude is “really true” and not just what they happen to think today.

  6. Eric,
    Sorry for the dead air the last few weeks. We recently moved and free time has been sparse. I don’t want to leave the conversation hanging at that last comment so I’d like to try and sum up where we’ve been and make an attempt to refresh the line of thinking that I had pursued. Sorry for the length of this but I wanted to set the table for the response to your most recent comment.

    Early in the discussion I locked onto your claim that “Objective morality is an absolute which we can believe we know something about” and was seeking to flesh out the reasons behind this because I have a hard time finding the evidence for moral realism. At first I understood you to have taken a pragmatic approach when you said that “I don’t think objective morality is necessarily a better explanation of how we feel. I think personal choice or natural selection or common heritage can easily explain how we all think. But if we expect anyone else to abide by the same ethic, all those explanations are pretty useless”. I interpretted this to essentially say that we should be moral realists because it yields the best society. You then corrected this by saying that this wasn’t your reason for accepting moral realism and then offered two alternative reasons: (1) that most of us can’t help acting as if morality is objective, and (2) that Jesus preached an objective ethic.

    I then decided to pursue #1 further and I asked if you agreed that “the part of our moral experience which pushes us toward moral realism is our compulsion to resist saying that it is OK for people to engage in certain activities”. You agreed, but with the caveat that our tendency toward acting as if moral realism is true is due to more than just a feeling, it comes from a confident sense of actually knowing that some things are right and wrong. This, you said, is tapping into a universal ethic that some “refuse to recognise in their thinking what they feel in their heart – or even ‘harden’ their heart so they no longer recognise the universal ethic” and later “It takes a higher commitment … to cause us to ignore what deep down we know.”. I then suggested that our feelings (or moral impulses) are actually our primary moral guides rather than our cognitive moral judgments (i.e., moral reasoning). I did this by observing that we tend to perceive a link between our emotions and our moral judgments and, when it comes down to it, rely on feeling and intuition rather than reasoning. In response you pointed out that emotion sometimes works against objective ethics and in some cases we rely on moral reasoning to do what is right. I countered the examples by suggesting that empathy and the anticipation of feelings are both highly influential and noted that the trolley problem counts against the perception that we rely on cognition for moral judgments.

    I then also tried to probe the nature of the universal ethic that we “feel in our heart” and “deep down we know”. Under a strict interpretation I understood this to mean that when people disagree on a moral judgment, at least one person is always betraying their conscience. This then brings us to your most recent comment.

    I think these and many other examples show that, for me at least, emotions are a poor guide to ethical behaviour.

    My proposal is that this is not so much an indication of cognition overriding emotion but rather the weighing of conflicting emotions and feelings which pull in opposite directions. This is admittedly dipping into a grey area where we seem to be distinguishing between different types of mental functions as if they are clearly distinct – but that is part of my point. It is not at all obvious to me that “knowing deep down” that something is wrong is really any different than anticipating a set of undesirable feelings in association with the act.

    This is not to say that I don’t think it is possible for people to make moral judgments with limited reliance on emotion. That does seem to happen, but others will ultimately appeal to something else in assessing whether that judgment was correct, most likely that which we “feel in our heart”. It is also worth pointing out that this type of cognitive override that pushes aside emotion and feeling is commonly associated with immoral actions, like in Nazi Germany or the Milgram experiment and Stanford prison experiment. We define psychopathy, in part, by a lack of empathy and there are numerous brain scan studies which reinforce this.

    To help clarify our views here, may I ask you please to better define what you mean when you say moral reasoning is possibly “ultimately driven by feeling” and you know some things are wrong because they “evoke anger, hatred and disgust”?

    I was not suggesting that I determine right and wrong by evaluating the emotions evoked during moral reflection. I was observing that emotions (sometimes strong) are in fact evoked in response to moral reflection and will subsequently reinforce moral convictions. I was citing this as evidence that there is a strong emotional component to our moral intuition – the things we “feel in our heart” and “know deep down”.

    I asked “Why is it better to arrive at a moral truth than simply a moral agreement?” and you said

    Because two people, or a group, can often be wrong.

    Ah, but we haven’t yet reached a moral agreement here because you are still judging the others as “wrong”. Let me clarify by setting aside the inevitability of moral disagreement: why is it better to arrive at a moral truth than to arrive at uncontested moral agreement? From the inside, I don’t think that we could tell the difference between a society that all follows a moral truth and a society that all agree on their moral judgments.

    I think we learn to disregard our conscience, but if pressed we may still feel conscience stricken. … I have to some degree bludgeoned my conscience into submission. Like I said, religion, politics, greed, comfort, atheism, science, worthy causes, and many other isms can help us blunt our conscience.

    I asked about the scenario where two people disagree about “what deep down they know” because I wanted to better understand your perspective on the nature of moral intuition. What I’m hearing you say is that there truly is a common universal ethic embedded deep within us but it is possible for some people to be unable to recognize it in its true form. So my question is, why insist that there is a true form? Isn’t the simpler explanation that this “deep down” guidance (what I call moral intuition) can actually just point in different directions for different people?

  7. Hi Travis, this is a terrific reply. Sums things up well. No worries about delay – that’s part of life in blogworld, and well worth waiting for. You are raising some aspects which I haven’t much considered, so I need to think about some of that, and it may be that I haven’t been totally consistent as I work my ideas out better. But it is a very useful process, so thanks. I’ll take a day or two to think about my reply, so just responding briefly now. Thanks. Eric.

  8. G’day again Travis. You have summarised your thoughts to my responses very well. I will try to explain the big picture as I see it (at present at least).

    I think my main underlying idea is the difference between ontology & epistemology – between what is actually true and how we might think we know that.

    What does it mean to say something is true? This is generally obvious when we are talking about physical facts, for there is a reality in the physical world corresponding (or not) to the truth we say. But when we’re talking about intangibles, there is no physical reality to correspond with. We need to be able to say what truth means in this case. We can say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, meaning beauty is a subjective belief or brain state. We can say 1 + 1 = 2 is objectively true though I’m not sure “where” such a truth exists.

    And what does it mean to say we know something is true? Again this is generally clear with physical things – we can check the reality by observation, over and over again if necessary. But again, what about intangibles? How can we ever say we know them? For subjective things like beauty, we can just say that is what I am feeling or thinking and that is sufficient. For 1 + 1 = 2, we can “know” it because we can prove it (I’m not sure if I can, but I’m sure someone can!).

    So what about moral “truths”? I can’t see how a naturalist can say moral truths exist. What does that statement even mean? There is no place for them to exist. The most a naturalist seems to be able to say is that it is true that people feel certain ways about certain moral propositions (such feelings or beliefs actually exist in the minds, or at least in the brain states, of those people), but that is a quite different “truth”.

    So it is also hard to see how a naturalist can know an objective moral truth if they can’t actually exist for him/her. We can easily justify subjective morality the same as we can know beauty, but we can’t prove objective morality like we can 1+1 = 2.

    The theist is in a much better position. We can say that moral truths correspond to states of God’s mind and character (which by definition are true), so it is possible that they exist and that he has created a universe in which they are actually true. And we can know them because God has given us a moral capacity plus some revelation to help because our moral sense is much more impaired than our rationality.

    So that is my brief background on the issues you raise, where I think you may be confusing ontology with epistemology (and I may have too).

    So when I said “I don’t think objective morality is necessarily a better explanation of how we feel. I think personal choice or natural selection or common heritage can easily explain how we all think. But if we expect anyone else to abide by the same ethic, all those explanations are pretty useless”, I didn’t mean as you interpreted that we should be moral realists because it yields the best society. I meant that you can explain how we feel, and you can explain subjective morality in many ways, but you can’t explain objective morality that way, and most people believe some things are truly objectively wrong or write. So if we want to explain that, we need objective ethics. If we don’t want objective ethics, we need to stop thinking that rape and genocide a really wrong and start thinking they are only subjectively wrong (i.e. you and I agree, but some others don’t and we have no way to say they are wrong!

    When you say “our feelings (or moral impulses) are actually our primary moral guides rather than our cognitive moral judgments (i.e., moral reasoning)” I think you are talking about the epistemology of subjective ethics. We may feel that we are talking about objective ethics, but like I said before, I can’t see where such ethics exist for a naturalist. And I don’t think feelings = moral impulses. Sometimes feelings = anti-moral impulses.

    “why is it better to arrive at a moral truth than to arrive at uncontested moral agreement? From the inside, I don’t think that we could tell the difference between a society that all follows a moral truth and a society that all agree on their moral judgments.”

    Again you are talking about epistemology, how we arrive at a moral conclusion. But my concerns are these: (1) Can we trust the near universal feeling that some things really are right or wrong? (2) If we do trust this, what are the implications? (3) How do we know what is objectively truly right and wrong? Thus my concerns are about both ontology and epistemology relating to objectively true ethics.

    It seems to me that you are most of the time talking about the epistemology of subjective ethics. If we can’t believe in objective ethics, then that is sensible, and I wouldn’t argue with anyone for doing that. But I would still; say “don’t you think your moral intuitions are actually telling you your naturalistic assumptions are doubtful?”

    So we get to your final comment:

    “What I’m hearing you say is that there truly is a common universal ethic embedded deep within us but it is possible for some people to be unable to recognize it in its true form. So my question is, why insist that there is a true form? Isn’t the simpler explanation that this “deep down” guidance (what I call moral intuition) can actually just point in different directions for different people?”

    Same again. Yes we could say and believe that, and if naturalism is right that is the only thing we can do. But we almost all think there really is a true ethic about some matters, so your “solution” ignores our deepest human instincts (some things really are right or wrong) in favour of a philosophical abstraction (naturalism implies there are no objective ethics). I think that is the true dilemma.

    In everything else, we are observers, looking at people and objects and the entire universe from the outside. But with introspection, we are looking at ourselves from the inside. Looking from the outside, naturalistic science cannot really explain consciousness, volition, objective ethics, rationality, etc. It must reduce these subtle features of our minds to mere brain states and processes, and leave the qualia, the sense of what it is like to be me, my volition, etc, either unexplained or denied. So we have a choice.

    1. Because science is good at explaining objects and physical processes, we can believe that they are the only things that exist (physicalism) and deny all that we experience from within, and reduce it all to what physicalism can deal with – brain states etc. Or ….
    2. Accept that science is great at some things but not equipped to deal with what we experience as ourselves. Science can tell us which parts of the brain are involved in thinking about ethics or making a choice but our experience of being human is a better guide to what is actually happening.

    So the naturalist makes one choice, and I make another. The naturalist believes they are right, I think they are mistaken. About ethics, as well as all the other things. It’s an important choice, and I think will determine no less than the future of western civilisation. So I believe you are right to be thinking so hard about it.

    I’m not sure if this is the response you expected, but I am happy to keep discussing or answer specific questions if you think I missed a few points here. Thanks again.

    • Eric,
      You’ve quickly brought us down to the heart of the matter. This is broaching the much larger topic of ontology and metaphysics in general, which I have been contemplating a lot recently (in large part due to my discovery of the Don Johnson podcast – this is frequently his main sticking point). Rather than pursue this further here I would like to finally get around to writing a long overdue post discussing ontology; something a bit like I did with epistemology (Part 1 and Part 2). Perhaps I will dovetail that into a more detailed discussion of moral ontology.

      If you’re interested in a glimpse of where that post will head then I would take a look at Part 1 of the epistemology posts; specifically where I discuss logic, mathematics and grammar. In short, I have a hard time seeing how our ontology is not largely (if not entirely) dependent on our epistemology. In this comment thread I was in part exploring the ontological implications of the relationships that we observe between our moral intuition and other phenomenon. I briefly did something similar where I discussed the epistemology of logic, mathematics and grammar.

      So, stay tuned – but don’t hold your breath. It may still be a while before anything is published. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

      • Thanks. I appreciate the discussion. I’ll try to stay tuned and keep breathing – probably emphasising the latter even more than the former! I’ll also check out the links – maybe comment there, maybe not.

  9. “The problem of evil is perhaps the most difficult issue to address … When people complain that there is evil in the world, they are not simply offering their opinion. They are instead saying that true, objective evil exists. … the existence of true evil necessitates the presence of God as a standard of true virtue.”
    – J. Warner Wallace in Cold Case Christianity, p 134-135

    I think this is problematic to begin with. I think this walks right into the Euthyphro dilemna. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma. The author almost certainly knows this and hopefully he gives some sort of explanation. But I would like to know what he gives as no explanation I have heard so far really serves his purpose.

    Moreover the atheist can argue the problem of evil as a hypothetical case. In other words they would say you as a christian you believe these things:

    1) God exists
    2) God created everything
    3) God is all good through and through
    4) Real evil exists

    And then point out that these beliefs somehow contradict each other. (Your blog does a better job setting out the problem but I am just giving a short hand here.)

    At no point does the atheist have to say he believes any of these claims. To make this argument the Atheist does not himself have to believe that real evil exists. The atheist might not believe any of the claims and the argument might still cause a problem for a Christian.

    So I think there are a couple of problems with Christians arguing this line of thought.

    • Hi Joe,
      A search for J Warner Wallace and Euthyphro’s Dilemma showed that he once tweeted a link to a blog post that defends the view I’ve also heard William Lane Craig espouse, that “God is the standard of good and God wills something because doing so is an expression of God’s essentially good nature”. I take it then that this is his position, which I think is an acceptable answer.

      It looks like we’re largely in agreement on the topic of this post. What really bothers me is that I have heard Greg Koukl admit in the Stand to Reason podcast that the anti-realist can simply adopt the realists’ view for the sake of argument (as you noted) and then the dependence on realism goes away. If he knows this, then why does he still write things like I quoted above – that “Support for subjective morality means surrendering the most rhetorically appealing argument against God: evil.”? I can’t help but feel like this is a dishonest maneuver.

      • I suspected he would rely on William Lane Craig’s response. I don’t think it shows what he claims. But I see the William Lane Craig argument enough that I think I will do a short blog on it on my site.

        As to arguing en arguendo I am not sure if this dishonest. I agree that if this is all there is to it then he is making a bad argument. But often people get confused. Even smart and reasonable people get confused.

        Or perhaps he thinks one could be a Christian and believe in an anti-real form of morality. Some believe in the divine command theory which has morality based on God. Maybe some other form of anti-realism is possible. I tend to think the Christian faith puts forth a realist view of morality but I honestly never got into the nuts and bolts of whether a realist view is necessary for someone to be christian. (Some might say Christians do not need to believe in the resurrection or even in God.)

        I think confusion is the most likely explanation. But I am not sure. I wouldn’t conclude that intentional dishonesty is at work though.

  10. I posted my blog about this response.
    http://trueandreasonable.co/2014/07/02/euthyphro-dilemma-and-william-lane-craigs-response/
    The response really dates back to Anselm and perhaps to augustine. I think these alternate possibilities help the Christian deal with the dilemna. But this third option in no way establishes that “…the existence of true evil necessitates the presence of God as a standard of true virtue.”
    – J. Warner Wallace in Cold Case Christianity, p 134-135

  11. Reblogged this on Finding Truth and commented:

    This is one of Travis’s older posts, but it’s new to me, and I think it’s great. He offers a fantastic illustration that shows how moral realism is not a satisfactory objection (or resolution) to the problem of evil.

What do you think?

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