Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A third kind of moral argument

The most common kind of moral argument for theism is that theism better fits with there being moral truths (either moral truths in general, or some specific kind of moral truths, like that there are obligations) than alternative theories do. Often, though not always, this argument is coupled with a divine commmand theory.

A somewhat less common kind of argument is that theism better explains how we know moral truths. This argument is likely to be coupled with an evolutionary debunking argument to argue that if naturalism and evolution were true, our moral beliefs might be true, and might even be reliable, but wouldn’t be knowledge.

But there is a third kind of moral argument that one doesn’t meet much at all in philosophical circles—though I suspect it is not uncommon popularly—and it is that theism better explains why we have moral beliefs. The reason we don’t meet this argument much in philosophical circles is probably that there seems to be very plausible evolutionary explanations of moral beliefs in terms of kin selection and/or cultural selection. Social animals as clever as we are benefit as a group from moral beliefs to discourage secret anti-cooperative selfishness.

I want to try to rescue the third kind of moral argument in this post in two ways. First, note that moral beliefs are only one of several solutions to the problem of discouraging secret selfishness. Here are three others:

  • belief in karmic laws of nature on which uncooperative individuals get very undesirable reincarnatory outcomes

  • belief in an afterlife judgment by a deity on which uncooperative individuals get very unpleasant outcomes

  • a credence around 1/2 to an afterlife judgment by a deity on which uncooperative individuals get an infinitely bad outcome (cf. Pascal’s Wager).

These three options make one think that cooperativeness is prudent, but not that it is morally required. Moreover, they are arguably more robust drivers of cooperative behavior than beliefs about moral requirement. Admittedly, though, the first two of the above might lead to moral beliefs as part of a theory about the operation of the karmic laws or the afterlife judgment.

Let’s assume that there are important moral truths. Still, P(moral beliefs | naturalism) is not going to exceed 1/2. On the other hand, P(moral beliefs | God) is going to be high, because moral truths are exactly the sort of thing we would expect God to ensure our belief in (through evolutionary means, perhaps). So, the fact of moral belief will be evidence for theism over naturalism.

The second approach to rescuing the moral argument is deeper and I think more interesting. Moreover, it generalizes beyond the moral case. This approach says that a necessary condition for moral beliefs is being able to have moral concepts. But to have moral concepts requires semantic access to moral properties. And it is difficult to explain on contemporary naturalistic grounds how we have semantic access to moral properties. Our best naturalistic theories of reference are causal, but moral properties on contemporary naturalism (as opposed to, say, the views of a Plato or an Aristotle) are causally inert. Theism, however, can nicely accommodate our semantic access to moral properties. The two main theistic approaches to morality ground morality in God or in an Aristotelian teleology. Aristotelian teleology allows us to have a causal connection to moral properties—but then Aristotelian teleology itself calls for an explanation of our teleological properties that theism is best suited to give. And approaches that ground morality in God give God direct semantic access to moral properties, which semantic access God can extend to us.

This generalizes to other kinds of normativity, such as epistemic and aesthetic: theism is better suited to providing an explanation of how we have semantic access to the properties in question.

1 comment:

Miguel said...

An interesting moral argument would be the argument from conscience, favored by Cardinal Newman. This is my interpretation of it: the impression I get is that it is somewhat similar to arguments from religious experience, but wrt morality instead. We have an inner "voice of conscience" which absolutely forbids certain acts, or obliges us to do certain things. I think it is plausible to say that this feature -- we may call it an "experience of a moral voice or conscience" -- is best explained by theism and the idea that the natural law is inscribed in our hearts, and harder to satisfactorily explain under naturalism. First, we could have developed moral behavior in different ways, so this experience of a moral voice wouldn't be strictly necessary. Second, how exactly do we explain this experience of a moral voice merely in terms of brain functions and other natural features? It seems like, prima facie, a natural explanation would leave something unexplained about the richness of this moral conscience, and the impression of subjectivity we find in that voice - as if it were someone talking and reacting to us, similar to certain religious experiences. So the specific manner we come to know moral duties in many cases seem similar to religious experiences.