Moral ontology

A while back I wrote a post titled “What is a moral claim” that did not do a good job of getting at the heart of the topic I was actually aiming to address. So I wanted to recalibrate and go beyond asking “what is a moral claim” by offering an answer. That has turned into a rather thoroughgoing presentation of what I now consider to be the moral ontology which is most likely true. Sorry for the length, but I hope its worth the effort.

First, some moral epistemology

This is what your conscience looks like

I am of the opinion that epistemology should inform ontology (and vice versa). In other words, understanding how it is that we know about something should play a role in defining what we think that something is. Likewise, our understanding of what something is should play a role in defining how it is that we know about it (I covered this more generally in My Ontology – Part 1). I have found that the discussion of morality, particularly in the God debate, often focuses on moral ontology – we like to talk about what morality is without giving too much thought to the epistemology. By asking “What is a moral claim?” in that post last year I was aiming to explore how moral epistemology might inform our moral ontology – contra William Lane Craig, who suggests we should just posit our desired moral ontology and then define our epistemology as a follow-on.

My assertion in that original post was that we can recognize moral claims, and distinguish them from other claims, and that this tells us something about the nature of morality. As was noted by several commenters, this supports nothing more than the notion that morality is at minimum a distinct mental concept. However, I was aiming for something more…

The moral referent

In one of the comments on that original post Dave compared morality to beauty, to which I replied by noting that:

“This is the question of the referent. For beauty, we can generally link the shared concept to ‘the way we feel about certain sensory perceptions’, like sunsets, music, etc…. There is a class of experiences which trigger a similar response in us and so we call those things beautiful.”

This gets to the heart of the matter. As with beauty, there must be some referent which shapes the concept of morality and, as with beauty, it appears that the best we can do is to introspectively trace this to a particular feeling. Just as the concept of “tree” is informed purely by the phenomenal experience of trees (and not through some special metaphysical access to the abstract ideal tree) the concept of beauty is informed by the phenomenal experience of conditions which trigger a particular feeling. Isn’t it most reasonable – perhaps even obvious – that morality is no different?

But there are trees out there in the real world which are separate from our phenomenal experience of them. What is the corresponding reality which feeds into the concept of morality?

When I presented my ontology, I identified universals as mental concepts which are constructed as generalizations of our experience of particulars. The particulars which inform a universal need not be mind-independent, objective entities. Despite the connotations of our language (e.g., “that’s a beautiful sunset”), most of us are not inclined to actually assign beauty as an intrinsic property of the object of our perception, but we rather accept it as a subjective component of our experience; beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Likewise, we’re all familiar with the concept of sadness, but not because it exists ‘out there’ in some sense, but because we are all human and have been able to relate a similar internal state to a common idea which we can communicate. My proposal is that morality is like beauty and sadness. Morality is informed by my phenomenal experience of the feelings and intuitions which arise under certain circumstances.

I take it that the view I have presented for sadness and beauty is fairly uncontroversial, but for some reason morality is a different beast. We struggle against the prospect that the subjective experience of the feelings and intuitions which have informed our conception of morality might be wholly subjective – it’s uncomfortable to suppose that there isn’t an objective reality against which we can hold others accountable and point to and say “No! You’re wrong!” How do we account for this relatively unique property of the moral experience?

 The social theory of moral origins

I have been hesitant to adopt the standard naturalist explanation for the origin of morality as an evolutionary product of our social heritage. Regardless, I have since come to accept that the evolutionary development of a moral faculty driven by social selection pressures is quite plausible. In the following sections I attempt to summarize the key evidences and reasoning behind this conclusion.

Prosociality in non-human primates

If morality is an evolutionary product then there should be traces of it in other species and, in fact, morally relevant sociality is a characteristic of our closest evolutionary relatives (and beyond). This is perhaps best described by just about anything that Frans de Waal has published or, more immediately, his TED talk (below) offers a quick and accessible overview:

Social factors strongly influence our morality

If a social heritage was a key element in the development of our moral intuitions then we would expect to see that social forces have a continued impact on the expression of that morality. This appears to be the case:

  1. surveillanceSocial Awareness: A multitude of studies have demonstrated that even subtle awareness of “watchers” impacts our moral behavior. This may reflect a biological predisposition, but when we allow that our moral sense is in part a development that arises through our life experience, the social dimension of that development also corresponds nicely with this data point.
  2. Social Compliance: Setting aside survival instincts, ‘peer pressure’ is perhaps the most capable mechanism for getting us to act in opposition to our moral sense. The Milgram Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment, Nazi Germany and, more recently, Derren Brown’s “Push” program serve as some of the more extreme negative examples. However, this applies equally in reverse, where our tendency to realize an arduous moral good is substantially bolstered by encouragement from peers and anticipation of “other-praising” emotions.
  3. Social Feedback in Moral Development: From a developmental perspective, feedback about character and a disapproving response (a social consequence) is more influential on the formation of our moral sense than is feedback about the moral status of the action itself and a punishing response (a physical consequence).
  4. Social Comprehension: Our moral intuitions tend to calibrate moral culpability in accordance with the moral agent’s capacities and intentions. This feature depends on an interpersonal judgment built on a theory of mind, such as would be inherent in a socially developed morality where other agents inform that development.

In the end, it is clear that the social environment is a primary factor in our moral behavior even when the social consequences of our behavior lie well beyond our perception. This is consistent with the theory that social pressures have guided the development of our moral sense.

The rider and the elephant

elephant_and_riderThe long-standing traditions of moral philosophy and ethics infer that moral judgment is primarily a rational endeavor, but this appears to be a flawed conclusion. Jonathan Haidt has famously compared our moral sense to a rider on an elephant – the rider being our reasoning process and elephant being our emotionally driven intuitions. There is an extensive body of constantly growing literature on this topic, so for a deeper dive on the role of emotion in morality I will simply refer to the writings of Joshua Greene and Jesse Prinz in addition to those of Haidt.

Regardless, the proposition that our moral sense is predominantly emotional only lends support to the social theory of moral origins when we consider empathy and the explanations on offer for the causal link between morality and emotions. Claus Lamm is one of the more prolific researchers of empathy and is a cautious voice at a time when many are hailing mirror neurons and empathy as the underpinnings of our moral intuitions. Despite this caution he affirms that “there is compelling evidence that similar neural structures are activated when empathizing with someone and when directly experiencing the emotion one is empathizing with” (here) and that “There is some support for the above-mentioned role of empathy in morality, although the direct link between empathy and morality remains rather unclear and requires further investigation” (here).

I hope to heed Lamm’s concerns but I also cannot help but step back to view the big picture and see a tidy set of links wherein our moral intuitions are largely dictated by an emotional elephant whose course can be directed by the neurological capacity to take on the perspective of others – a definitively social faculty. The cohesive picture this paints is compelling and when one considers the implications for moral origins, the social theory seems a natural fit.

Moral agreement

bonobo_hugThe last piece of evidence I wish to present for the social theory of moral origins is the very concern which instigated this discussion – the apparently innate drive toward moral agreement. The desire to hold others and ourselves accountable to a particular moral standard has led many to conclude that morality itself is objective (in fact, this is the only non-pragmatic reason I am aware of for the claim of objectivity) but this phenomenon is also explained if our moral sense was developed through social pressures. To say that selection occurred through social pressures is to imply that there is a social dynamic to the evolutionary pathway. This, in turn, requires that there be some sort of reproductive advantage to the selected pro-social tendencies. However, a lone altruist among a band of free-riders is unlikely to realize any advantage. The advantages which arise from prosocial behavior are then also dependent on reciprocity and cooperation. This means that the development of prosocial behavior is most readily accomplished in coordination with the development of proclivities which favor agreement and reject disagreement with respect to those behaviors. The end result is not only a tendency toward prosocial behavior, but a tendency toward favoring agreement on those behaviors.

Some will object here and suggest that our intuitions regarding the objectivity of morality are more like the intuitions we have regarding the veracity of a proposition (e.g., I am sitting on a chair) than they are like a drive toward agreement with others. I’m not sure this is a proper assessment, but I do agree that on the spectrum of intuitions about an entity’s objectivity, our moral intuitions are generally weighted closer toward the ‘objective’ end compared to more broadly subjective claims like beauty, ice cream flavors, etc… This is perhaps most evident in the language we tend to employ in moral discourse, where objectivity is often inferred (though not always – and this inference is certainly also frequently employed in other domains that are generally regarded to be subjective). That said, I’ll offer two thoughts in response:

  1. As noted above, morality is deeply entangled with emotion. The majority of other subjectively informed claims do not carry the same emotional weight, and this is a significant component of the perceived difference and the drive toward absolutes. That is, the strength of the underlying emotions compels us toward an unwavering perspective. There may even be some degree of a subconscious post-hoc rationalization informing an intuition of moral objectivity. The emotional elephant leads the way and the rider can only make sense of the world by rationalizing the course it’s taking as if that is simply reflecting the objective facts about the world. Neuropsychology is replete with examples of how our cognition engages in this kind of post-hoc rationalization and confabulation.
  2. Though speculative, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the evolution of our moral sense may have incorporated the same faculties which bear on our sense of objective veracity if this improves the effectiveness of morality as a motivating factor. Despite the protests of anti-realists, the data does seem to indicate that moral realism is more conducive to moral compliance than is anti-realism (see one, two, three). This makes intuitive sense – if we think that our moral judgments do not have any subjective wiggle room and we can thus be held objectively accountable to those judgments, then we are more motivated to align our behavior with those judgments. So if our moral sense evolved to incorporate some of the same cognitive machinery that helps us judge the veracity of non-moral propositions then the moral sense would be more effective in eliciting the advantage of moral behavior. The net result would be the subjective perception, to some degree, that our moral judgments are in fact objective. Subjective preferences like beauty wouldn’t carry the same selective advantage and so wouldn’t bear the same character in this regard.
Social origins objection #1: Widespread non-social moral intuitions

ralphiesoapSo what about those pervasive moral claims which are devoid of social impact? For example, why have so many cultures moralized purity and why has disgust been shown to influence our moral judgments? How does the social theory of moral origins explain this?

The first point to make on this topic is to note that whereas some moral claims are devoid of a direct social impact, they are typically not insulated from social feedback. In particular, the anticipation of shame is a significant factor in motivating against non-social behaviors which have been moralized.

Second, there may very well be an indirect social impact. In the case where purity or disgust is linked to the non-social moralized behavior we can note that an inadequate avoidance of pathogens is not only detrimental to the individual but also to that person’s social circle. The germ theory of disease converts a seemingly non-social disgust instinct into a socially relevant behavior, such that social judgment that accompanies moralization may in fact be efficacious.

Lastly, if our moral sense is largely an adaptive product of evolution then the evolutionary path is predicated on the behavior which corresponds with our moral sense (because the feelings themselves offer no selective advantage apart from behavior). Evolution favors efficiency, so it is likely that the neurological systems which serve to guide our behavior in general (through the feelings which motivate and inhibit) are also involved in our moral sense, such that there is some level of commonality in our interoception of the morally relevant motivations and the motivations which influence other aspects of our well-being. This would imply that there isn’t a ‘moral’ category that cleanly distinguishes moral interoception from other interoception. So even if the majority of the intuitions that we have categorized as ‘moral’ carry a social relation, it is reasonable that other, non-social intuitions may seem to fit that category as well.

Social origins objection #2: Culturally constructed morality

Many anthropologists have argued that morality is memetic, not genetic. That is, they suggest that the moral sense is learned and acquired from one’s environment – specifically, one’s cultural influences. I think there’s some truth to this perspective, but I don’t see that it is mutually exclusive with an evolutionary explanation. It seems quite evident that cultural influences serve to inform our moral intuitions but this alone does not explain the aforementioned ‘moral referent’, that distinct component of our interoception. I do not doubt that one’s moral compass is informed by their environment but it’s the compass itself that is primarily of interest here, and culture does not explain it’s existence in the first place.

This is an important concept when it comes to the discussion of moral progress. If morality is defined to be nothing more than a cultural construction then the realist is correct to suggest that there is no such thing as progress. However, if there is a biological basis for the moral sense then progress can be assessed relative to that faculty. Even if there is variability across persons, there is still a common origin that fosters some level of agreement at a fundamental level. Here anthropology re-enters the picture to support the notion of an innate moral nature, as elucidated in the work of Donald Brown and Richard Shweder. This is not to suppose that we can necessarily determine right and wrong answers to individual moral claims by reference to that nature alone, but rather to say that there is a general bent which our species shares.

What is a moral claim?

This was the question I asked long ago and hoped to also answer here. In case the preceding discussion has not made it clear, I am arguing that morality is the concept which refers to a particular set of feelings and intuitions that arise as a result of predispositions which developed in our species through social pressures and are shaped and influenced by our development, experiences and reasoning. As such, a moral claim is simply a claim which implicitly or explicitly refers to those feelings and intuitions (or their absence) as if they were properties of an action, person, object or event. This perspective entails a particular moral ontology, namely …

Moral relativism

So it seems that in adopting this view I have officially joined the moral relativist camp. I am quite comfortable with the epistemology and ontology this entails (as outlined above) but these are not informing my conclusion in isolation. Other considerations include:

  1. Dependence on biology:  Though I have already touched on this to some degree, there is much more that could be said. Neuroscience has increasingly demonstrated how variations in our neurology bear on our morally relevant judgements and behavior, as most famously illustrated by the classic cases of Phineas Gage and Charles Whitman (also see Patricia Churchland’s ‘Braintrust’ and, more briefly, David Eagleman’s article in the Atlantic for overviews). While this state of affairs is not logically inconsistent with moral realism, it is more parsimonious with a relativistic ontology.
  2. Moral diversity:  In accordance with the biological dependence noted above, we observe that these variations manifest themselves in widespread moral disagreement. Though it is true that there are many claims where moral agreement abounds, and even some fundamentals that are nearly universal, it is also the case that moral disagreement is more rampant than is found in objectively arbitrated claims. That is, we are more likely to disagree about a moral claim than to disagree about a claim that is based on empirical observations. As before, though this condition is not incompatible with moral realism, it highlights a divergence from the ontologies we posit for most of the entities that we identify as objective and so it is in that sense unexpected. Conversely, such diversity is entirely expected under a relativistic framework.
The implications

Epistemology and ontology aside, relativistic normative ethics is admittedly troubling. Not because I am forced to subscribe to Dostoyevsky’s “all things are permitted” – the shallow characterization of relativism which completely abandons both normative ethics and moral discourse and is often parroted by theistic apologists. No, the trouble is that normative ethics are inherently social and even when we employ frameworks which seek to satisfy our moral intuitions about fairness and reciprocity, such as social contract theory, we are unable to realize the ideal. The application of a normative ethic at the social level will require some level of subjugation wherever there is genuine moral disagreement. Perhaps this is simply an inescapable tension which is intrinsic to our moral sense; a consequence of the unavoidable competition between the benefits of both freedom and cooperation. Just as the realists must concede the inability to objectively arbitrate the moral truths to which they subscribe, perhaps the relativist must concede that the implementation of normative ethics cannot escape the morally distasteful act of imposition. Thrasymachus made a similar observation 2500 years ago and as far as I can tell we’re no closer to a solution. It’s worth continued discussion, but I have grown increasingly skeptical that it will ever be resolved.

Moral relativism also does not mean that we surrender our ambitions of moral progress. There is a human nature and even pervasive moral intuitions are sometimes inconsistent, or in conflict with our nature, or uninformed or misinformed by errant beliefs. Moral discourse and experience can elicit change so that our moral judgments are more accurately aligned with reality and with our inherent nature. Relativism does not mean that we accept all moral claims as equally true. It does not entail pacifism, complacency or anarchy. It does not ask us to ignore our sense of indignation and stand idly by. No, none of these strawmen are true if you’re willing to scrutinize your moral judgments. Can a moral relativist tell somebody else that their behavior is wrong? Yes, but be ready to expose the inconsistencies and faults in their reasoning. Can a moral relativist promote or discourage social policy? Yes, but be ready to use evidence to justify your position, preferably with reference to fulfillment of human nature. Can a moral relativist fight back or intervene when they perceive wrong? Yes, of course. I’m not sure I understand why I even feel the need to answer that question but the rhetoric around this issue suggests that I do.

The big objections

hitlerWhich leads to the big question. It was going to happen eventually, so I might as well put Godwin’s law into effect now: “Relativism, huh? So the Nazis weren’t wrong?” Under relativism I am able to say that the Nazis were wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. Notice that the framing of the objection begs the question for moral realism, so it’s a bit of a trap that tries to force a response within the bounds of that assumption, pushing one to grapple with the intuition toward objective morality that was the focus of the prior discussion. That said, it seems to me that it’s also very reasonable to argue against the legitimacy of the Nazi program on the grounds of errant beliefs and an inconsistency with the moral nature of those who carried out the program. Furthermore, as noted above, there is nothing about relativism which entails inaction or ambivalence toward those with whom we disagree.

“and there’s nothing wrong with torturing babies for fun?” Again, I am perfectly able to say that this is wrong according to my intuitions and those of everybody I know, but I’m not making an absolute claim. However, this is a bit more difficult because there isn’t any reason in this case to also object on the grounds of errant beliefs or conflicts in human nature. If an individual were to be biologically disposed so that they did not find this behavior morally abhorrent then I have nothing but disagreement to offer (though I would argue that in a practical sense, the realist is in the same position). As before, this does not entail inaction or ambivalence.

The last word

In the end, moral relativism is neither pacifism nor a blank check. It requires introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse. We sometimes act in ways which are in opposition to our true values and intentions; we experience regret. Relativism suggests that you take a hard look and try to understand those values and intentions – to consider whether they actually align with your nature and to examine how they are best achieved – and then to direct your life accordingly. You will still mess up, but at least you are trying and that diligence can eventually shift the underlying feelings and intuitions into closer alignment with reason and, hopefully, reality.

“Ha! Caught you. That’s self-defeating! You can’t say that moral relativism requires scrutiny of our moral judgments! That’s an absolute moral claim!”

I have indeed made a normative assumption, but that assumption was not moral. It was an assumption about the reliability of cause and effect. So allow me to rephrase: moral relativism is most rational and most able to accurately satisfy our morally relevant desires when coupled with introspection, reasoning, evidence and discourse.

I embarked on this truth-seeking pilgrimage four years ago and in doing so devoted myself to following the evidence wherever it leads. Accordingly, I have refrained from aligning with any particular moral theory for most of that time. It is an incredibly complex, confounding, divisive and emotionally draining topic. Evidence is difficult to gather and interpretations abound. So while I have finally taken the step of adopting a moral ontology, it is perhaps more tentative and provisional than any other position that I have staked, even as I recognize that this hesitancy is almost entirely emotionally motivated. Regardless, if you disagree with the conclusion then you are welcome to try and change my mind. That’s why I’m here.


What is a moral claim?

ScalesI thought I had something like an epiphany several weeks ago and had finally identified a theory of ethics that I could say was, from my perspective, “most probably true”. I started writing and had drafted outlines for a 9-part series. I wrote, and read, and thought … and then I stopped. I hit a wall. The theory, like every other moral theory ever, was incomplete. There were unexplained assumptions and unanswered questions.

The pseudo-epiphany began with a realization that I had misunderstood the core definition of moral realism, which is

Moral Realism:  Moral claims can be true or false and some are true.
(extracted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article)

Despite my interest and reading on the nature of ethics these last couple years, my prior conception of moral realism did not align with the definition above. Through numerous sources and interactions I had been led to define moral realism as requiring ontological independence – that morality, in a sense, exists on its own in some way (though I should note that the SEP article does add the disclaimer that “some accounts of moral realism see it as involving additional commitments, say to the independence of the moral facts from human thought and practice, or to those facts being objective in some specified way”). I guess that’s what happens when most of your education on ethics comes from sources in the God debate. Regardless, the definition given above is much less restrictive in its application than I had previously conceived and as I pondered this I found that it opened the door to new explanations for our intuitions regarding the truthfulness of moral claims, though I eventually began to doubt that I was really heading toward any kind of solution. Even so, I’m not yet willing to admit defeat, so I’m calling in reinforcements (yeah, that’s you). I have several “open questions” and I would like to solicit your input to help me clarify some things. My first request is for answers to the question “What is a moral claim?”, but before you answer, let me give you something to think about.

First, note that the definition of moral realism assumes that we know what a “moral claim” is and, the more I think about it, the more I question whether we can define “moral claim” without presupposing moral realism. To help illustrate this, I’d like to run through a couple examples. Consider the following two sentences:

  1. It is wrong to skin a cat.
  2. It is wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it.

We generally agree that #1 is a moral claim and that #2 is not. Now consider the following:

  1. It is wrong to turn a screw left to tighten it on a Wednesday.

Now the turning of a screw has become a moral claim. What changed? What is it that makes #1 and #3 moral claims, but not #2? As best I can tell the difference is in the referent of ‘wrong’. Claim #2 is referring to a goal – the outcome of tightening the screw, so ‘wrong’ in this context means that the goal will not be met. What is the referent in #1 and #3? Well, the referent seems to be morality itself – some standard of good and bad that isn’t really definable in any other terms without presupposing the existence of morality itself. That does not, however, mean that morality is thus necessarily independent of everything else. It simply means that our faculties are not equipped to define it by reference to something else. As far as I can tell, this leaves us with some form of moral realism – and it’s worth noting that under the definition given above, relativism is a form of realism. It is just a limitation on the scope of the moral truth.

As far as I can tell, this throws various forms of anti-realism out the window. There may be gray areas where it’s hard to tell whether something is or is not a moral claim, but at the extremes even an anti-realist can identify a moral claim from other types of claims. There must be something that they’re drawing upon to do that. That “something” may reduce to emotions, or some neurochemical state, but that’s still something. It’s real.

What do you think? Am I right about this? Does our ability to distinguish moral claims from other claims require moral realism?

PS: If you’re interested, this theory that I’ve put on ice is somewhere in the vicinity of contractualism with a contract that is based on negotiation between the core value judgements of all parties, rather than rational agreement, where by “core value judgements” I mean something like what we see in Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations.


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.


The root of unbelief

The Incredulity of Saint ThomasI’m going to break from the normal recipe here and discuss something I’ve encountered recently which has left me feeling a bit disappointed. It is not uncommon to find Christian commentary where a lack of belief in God is said to be rooted in some underlying emotional response, usually either disdain for the moral implications of Christianity or a stubborn insistence on wanting to be in control of one’s life (aka pride). The same is often said of unbelief’s more palatable cousin, doubt. I know this is nothing new and I have seen it many times before but these recent encounters compelled me to comment.

The most recent exposure came in listening to the Unbelievable podcast where Christian philosopher Jeff Cook argued that unbelief (and belief, for that matter) is a product of desire. The direction of the podcast often wandered and I never felt like the point was adequately explained so when I went to look for a better explanation I found that his thesis looked to be at least in part inspired by a quote from Blaise Pascal: “Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is” (Pensees 12).

A couple additional recent encounters came from reading Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Faith. In chapter 8 he quotes Lynn Anderson as saying “I personally think all unbelief ultimately has some other underlying reason. Sometimes a person may honestly believe their problem is intellectual, but actually they haven’t sufficiently gotten in touch with themselves to explore other possibilities”. Strobel then introduces the next chapter, the conclusion, with a quote from Ravi Zacharias, “A man rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the scarcity of evidence. A man rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit his need for God”.

I also had a vague recollection of related statements in some of William Lane Craig’s podcasts or debates, so I went looking and found a Reasonable Faith Q&A article littered with similar sentiments.

In the Case for Christ, Strobel himself also repeatedly infers that this was the primary roadblock for him. On multiple occasions he openly admitted that he did not want to believe Christianity primarily because he did not want to give up his immoral lifestyle. These statements stood out to me because they felt hollow. So let me explain.

What about me?

I’m not opposed to the idea of God. I generally agree with most of the moral principles encouraged by the Christian church. I would prefer that there be an afterlife. I see great value in living a “Christian life” – giving, serving, loving, forgiving, communing, hoping. I’m not a control freak, maybe even a bit of a pacifist. I’m currently inclined to believe in a form of determinism, which one could argue is perhaps more humbling than a Christian view of libertarian free will and surrender to God.

I think I could probably go on for a while, but I hope you get the point. In my introductory post I said that I started this journey because “I cannot, in good conscience, continue to accept ignorance as my position on so many matters”. The only emotional component there is the discomfort I feel when I deliberately look past evidence that challenges my beliefs. I am not motivated by a desire to be free from the shackles of a god who imposes himself on my life. I have never viewed Christianity that way and could probably give you a good theological argument to back it up. Psychoanalyze all you want, but I feel like I’m being as honest as I possibly can. The only desire that I am motivated by is the desire for truth.

Mr. Cook is correct to say that much of the “new athiest” propaganda contains emotional appeals to the undesirable aspects of religion and the god of the old testament but, in my experience, that is not a fair representation of people’s primary reasons for unbelief. Even if we take the undesirables into account, I would argue that the weight of those claims lies not in the emotional response but in the fact that they are contradictory to the more broadly accepted character of God; and contradiction is evidence that something is amiss.

It’s probably true that those who claim that unbelief is grounded in an emotional desire would concede that it does not apply to everybody. I can appreciate that, but here’s the thing: I don’t think that I am the exception. For those who imply that most unbelievers have emotional reasons for their unbelief, where is the evidence to back that up? When I peruse the seemingly infinite forums and discussions where the God debate rages on, it appears to me that unbelievers typically explain their position as arising from an intellectual argument. Why not take that at face value? Certainly there are unbelievers for whom their worldview is primarily driven by emotion, but I’m deeply skeptical that they are even close to the majority.

Turning the Tables

I think that this claim is often made in Christian circles because it offers an explanation for why somebody does not accept what is so readily apparent to the believer. In essence, the claimant is saying “The evidence for God is overwhelming – you must have some ulterior motive for not believing.” The implication here is that the unbeliever is deliberately turning a blind eye to the evidence because they don’t like where it leads. I would like to suggest, however, that perhaps this is exactly what the claimant is doing.

Could it be that the Christians who makes this claim are, at the core, primarily interested in reassuring themselves that they’re right? Could it be that they are seeking to reaffirm their position by asserting that the evidence is so strong that nobody could rationally reject it? Could it be that the possibility of a poorly evinced faith is so uncomfortable that it stirs them to claim that it is the opposing view, not they themselves, who are emotionally driven? Could it be that the claimant is simply unwilling to admit that they are doing the very thing that they accuse the unbeliever of – believing more on the strength of emotion than on the strength of the evidence?

Of course, all the same questions could be asked of the unbeliever but that just serves to point out the futility of the claim. I am on this journey because I do not see that the evidence for Christianity is overwhelming. I did not arrive at this point by following some gut reaction – I have given substantial consideration to countless arguments and data and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. So, yes, it bothers me when somebody implies that there’s something subversive behind it all. If that’s what you think is going on then I would like to suggest that you take a moment to go look in the mirror.