Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ethics and causal theories of knowledge and content

In the previous post, I said that generalizing from causation to explanation helps remove the difficulties posed by mathematical knowledge to causal theories of knowledge and content. What about knowledge of morality? The explanatory move does not seem to help. For not only is it mysterious how the fact that murder is wrong could cause us to believe that murder is wrong, but it is even mysterious how the fact that murder is wrong could help explain our belief. Again, just as in the morality case, bringing in God might help. If morality is grounded in the nature or will of God, then through God's power it might be efficacious on us—God might, in light of moral truths, create us with a propensity to believe these moral truths.

But again I want to suggest that there is a solution that is not explicitly theistic. Suppose an appropriate Natural Law theory is true. Then moral truths are grounded in the teleological features of our nature. Now our nature is not inert. It explains our development from embryo to adult. It is because rationality is a normative part of our nature that we as adults tend to exhibit rationality at least sometimes. This explanatory relation between our nature and features of us may be taken as final or formal causation (that is the classic Aristotelian way), or one might actually think it involves efficient causation, but in either case the way is at least open towards coming up with a story about moral knowledge or content that is compatible with the explanatory generalization of causal theories of knowledge or content. Whether in the end such a story would work is a further question.

The Aristotelian naturalist, thus, has the resources for resisting arguments for theism based on moral knowledge. Of course it may well be that an argument from the teleology of Aristotelian natures of the existence of God can be constructed.


Beancan Tatterpants said...

The Naturalist response is close.

You say, "God might, in light of moral truths, create us with a propensity to believe these moral truths."

The Naturalist says, "When it has become beneficial to do so, man has evolved in such a way that propensity to believe in certain moral truths has kept him alive and thriving, thus ensuring those traits will be passed down (either genetically or socially) to the next generation."

After all, there was a time in our history when it would not have appeared at all that "God" imbued us with a propensity to believe moral concepts (like 'murder is bad') since they weren't widely believed.

Your characterization is a good response, but that concept of teleology is a tricky one. Too often, the concepts of purpose and reason and "design" are conflated. Can it not be defined in terms of cause and effect (without invoking purpose) to avoid teleology altogether?

Alexander R Pruss said...

One difference is that on the theistic claim, we believe the moral claims because they are true. But on the naturalist claim, we believe the moral claims not because they are true, but because they are useful to believe. Thus, on this naturalist view, the truth of the moral claims does not enter into the explanation of why we believe them.

Beancan Tatterpants said...

Something being true and something being believed to be true are two different things.

I'll assume you mean that the moral statements are true because they correspond to either:

1)The word of an infinite being.
2)Your belief that they are the word of an infinite being.

If 1 is the case, then the naturalist is sunk (completely sunk, actually). Luckily for the naturalist, there is no corresponding truth to the first claim.

If 2 is the case, the definition for truth becomes recursive (note: not contradictory), corresponding only to your own belief structure. Thus, you see something as true because an authority bolsters your view that it is true. Unfortunately for the naturalist, there is also no corresponding truth to this claim.

Because of this, I would argue that "truth" for the non-naturalist is as arbitrary as for the naturalist, if not more (since naturalist ethic is derived at least from usefulness).