Balkinization  

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Religion and human rights: distinguishing the claims

Andrew Koppelman

There has been a great deal of discussion in the blogosphere lately about Michael Perry’s claim that the idea of human rights has no plausible secular foundation, provoking Perry to claim that he’s been misunderstood and to post his most recent paper on the topic. Chris Green has helpfully pointed out, with characteristic acuity, that there are four different questions that Perry might be taken to be asking:

1. Epistemic: how do we know that there are human rights? Religious revelation is one answer. It would be implausible, however, to suggest that it is the only answer. If that is the claim, then Brian Tamanaha has rebutted it. Knowledge of God’s existence has no more secure epistemic foundation than knowledge of human rights, so there is no gain in certainty from stacking one onto the other.

2. Ontological: in a materialist universe, there can be no compelling warrant for moral statements. Therefore, if you believe there are warranted moral claims, you can’t believe in a materialist universe. This is Green’s view. In order to be persuasive, it would have to be shown how warranted moral claims can be ontologically dependent on God’s existence. There are old and unresolved problems here about whether morality is just divine command, whether morality can be a constraint on God, and so forth. The pre-Kantian debates on that question are nicely covered in Jerome Schneewind’s magisterial book, The Invention of Autonomy.

3. Sociological/psychological: human beings can’t sustain a belief in human rights if they don’t believe in God. This claim is obviously silly, and no one in this conversation seems to be making it, though there are Americans who think it is true. It is more plausible to claim that many people’s ideas about morality are tightly linked to their ideas about religion.

4. Historical: the idea of human rights is rooted, at least in the West, in Christian doctrine. There’s no doubt that this is true, if only because Christianity was so pervasive in Western thought before the Enlightenment. (The modern idea of human rights is an Enlightenment idea, as Perry has noted, but the Enlightenment itself has Christian roots.) Some people in this discussion have taken 4 to be evidence of 1 or 2, but that’s just an error in logic. Modern astronomy is rooted in astrology, but astrology is not a good epistemic path to knowledge of astronomy, nor does the data of astronomy need an ontological basis in astrology.

It’s not clear to me whether Perry is arguing for 1 or 2. He’s certainly not claiming 3. And he understands that 4 is not particularly interesting philosophically.

Something mention ought to be made here of Immanuel Kant, who argued (in Critique of Practical Reason) that a person who acts morally is acting as if there were some reason to think that the aspirations of moral behavior – a world in which virtue is rewarded and vice punished - could be realized. And that implies a universe that is fundamentally orderly, which means, a universe presided over by a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely good. But Kant is emphatically not endorsing 1. For Kant, it's not that God implies human rights -- there have been conceptions of God that haven't done that, and Kant has some harsh words about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac just on God’s say-so -- but that human rights implies God.

But Kant also argues that the relation of human rights and religion yields no information whatsoever about God, and certainly cannot be cited as evidence of God's existence. For Kant, God's existence isn't knowable; it is at best something that one assumes, from a practical standpoint, when one acts morally. The epistemic arrows don’t work in either direction. This leaves it uncertain whether Kant is endorsing 2 or 3.

Of course, there is value in trying to get these philosophical issues right, and so there is value in this discussion. But lurking just off the wings is the very large number of Americans who believe 3, which, as I’ve said, is ignorant and bigoted hooey. One ought to be careful to distance oneself from that.

Comments:

Kant's notion that morality must be motivated by the hope of reward, is not one of his more glorious moments. Nietzsche satirized that mentality in the Genealogy.

Shorter Kant: morality isn't really *moral*, it's just self-interest taking the noumenal view of things.

I would prefer the Romantic misreading of Kant, as summed up by Sir Richard Burton (w/ some Victorian virility tossed in, but then, consider the source):

Do as thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause;
He noblest lives and noblest dies, who makes and keeps his self-made laws.

 

Thanks. I don't think that the lack of "compelling warrant" in no. 2 is quite right as a summary of what I think moral claims need, though, since that suggests something epistemic. I think "ontological ground" or "truthmaker" would be better, though they're philosophy-ese.

Looking briefly at Perry's new (unsearchable) article, he seems to be discussing the ontological grounding of moral statements, not their epistemic ground: he's considering the question "in virtue of what" moral claims might be true. It's easy, though, for that language to slip into epistemic notions--we can ask in virtue of what (epistemic) grounds we should believe moral claims, which is different from asking in virtue of what (ontological) grounds a moral claim is true.
 

A Place at the Table

This is not to say that religious people cannot be moral. However, honestly, most moral progress that we have seen in the past 400 years has come from secular moral thinkers. Remember, ‘secular’ does not mean ‘non-religious’ – it simply refers to somebody who does not use religious assumptions as a part of their argument.
...
For the most part, religions have responded to four centuries of secular moral progress by taking secular morality and using it to rewrite (reinterpret) their religious texts. Where populations have been most willing to rewrite scripture to conform to secular morality, these are the areas where we have seen the most moral progress. Where people are so strongly tied to their religious doctrine that they cannot stand the idea of reinterpretation, that is where we see the least moral progress. In fact, there, we often find barbaric cruelty.

 

This comment has been removed by the author.
 

Prof. Koppelman,

You said,

"2. Ontological: in a materialist universe, there can be no compelling warrant for moral statements. Therefore, if you believe there are warranted moral claims, you can’t believe in a materialist universe. This is Green’s view. In order to be persuasive, it would have to be shown how warranted moral claims can be ontologically dependent on God’s existence."

It seems to me that we can pull out a couple of relevant things from this:

Statement A) If you believe there are warranted moral claims, you can’t believe in a materialist universe.

Statement B) Warranted moral claims are ontologically dependent on God’s existence.

But see, the truth of statement A does not rely on the truth of statement B.

Even if warranted moral claims AREN'T dependent on God's existence, if we're skeptical, or in disagreement with the idea that any moral claims are warranted, we can still agree with statement A but also believe that theism can't provide warrant for moral claims either.

The truth of statement A does not rely on establishing that God provides the warrant for moral claims.

Even if statement B is false, this doesn't necessarily make materialism into a justification of moral views.
 

You misunderstand Kant. You write that "for Kant, God's existence isn't knowable, it is at best, something that one assumes...." But this is to miss the point of what Kant means when he says that something is a 'condition of possibility'. It's more than a mere assumption; Kant conceives of this as a means by which he can *prove* something. So when Kant says that God is a condition of possibility of morality, he is not saying that we have to assume God if we believe in morality, he is making the stronger claim that the existence of morality *proves* God's existence.
 

OK, I give up. There is no such thing as human rights, just as there is no such thing as moral behaviour... (it pains me to admit this) Morality is a constantly shifting end (kinda like Bush's dreams for Iraq)

Again, I give up.

tom

ps: Kant was an idiot... an inteligent idiot, but an idiot none the less.
 

It's more than a mere assumption; Kant conceives of this as a means by which he can *prove* something.

You're right, but how that actually worked out to be more than an assumption -- how the existence of "the moral law within" does the proving -- is one of the reasons we're not all Kantians. There's a bit of hand-waving, as I recall.
 

In an effort to prevent from being pedantic, I think I can read Prof. Koppelman's statement,

"2. Ontological: in a materialist universe, there can be no compelling warrant for moral statements. Therefore, if you believe there are warranted moral claims, you can’t believe in a materialist universe. This is Green’s view. In order to be persuasive, it would have to be shown how warranted moral claims can be ontologically dependent on God’s existence,"

a little more broadly, a little more charitably.

Though I think my above post is technically correct, in context, I think Prof. Koppelman was meaning that in order for Green's overall argument to succeed, it must be shown how warranted moral claims can be dependent on God's existence.

If so, then I agree.

In a vacuum, I think we could say that being a materialist and believing in warranted moral claims are incompatible, and we could also believe that theism fails to ground warranted moral claims.

But since Prof. Koppelman's statement was made in the context of the argument, I imagine he meant that in order for the point about the incompatibility of materialism and moral warrant to demonstrate that theism is better off, then demonstrating how warranted moral claims could depend on God's existence becomes relevant.

The failure of one system to demonstrate warrant does not demonstrate that another (or its opposite) succeeds.

So hopefully I've atoned for my 8:03 post which, perhaps a little pedantically, pointed out a true principle.
 

Happy birthday, Prof. Koppelman : )
 

"For Kant, God's existence isn't knowable; it is at best something that one assumes"

This is a sloppy and false dichotomy, and it totally destroys the nuances of Kant's thought on these issues.
 

"And he understands that 4[the history] is not particularly interesting philosophically."

It's only not interesting if you ignore the fact that the modern ontological theory of human rights arose exclusively in the West, under the domain of Christianity. That no such concept developed in China, India, or anywhere else shows that human rights may not be universally arrived at, but only with a particular religious viewpoint.
 

("The modern idea of human rights is an Enlightenment idea, as Perry has noted, but the Enlightenment itself has Christian roots.")

Christianity was not a religion from which the Enlightenment emerged.The Enlightnment was a reaction against Christianity. The US Constitution is a product of the Enlightenment.
Marjorie
 

Chris Eberle responds to this post at http://www.mirrorofjustice.com/mirrorofjustice/2007/08/chris-eberle-re.html
 

The number of people in the U.S. who care about 1, 2 or 4 is effectively zero while the number who believe strongly in 3 is large enough to alter the outcome of elections.
 

Eberle's right that the argument I sketched about moral claims in general is broader than asking what grounds human rights in particular, but I think it's not a whole lot broader. If the materialist can explain what it is in general that can make a moral claim true on his ontology, that'll go a long way toward explaining what it is that imposes a moral requirement on us to respect other human beings.
 

Michael Perry's claim is decidedly too bold. Yet, since at bottom human rights are believed not known, God seems a most elegant basis for their existence.
 

This is indeed a false dichotomy. I believe we need look no further than Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics to find a pre-Christian justification for human rights.
 

Look, I don't know whether God exists. I don't know that. And I tell you one thing, I am not frightened of my beliefs. If there is a God who is threatening me with damnation because I don't believe in Him, so be it. I've lived my life in conscience, and I will suffer damnation willingly in conscience against a tyrannical God who would damn me because, on the basis of the intelligence He gave me, I have come to a conclusion doubting His existence, and I will continue to be a skeptic all of my life.

- Alan M. Dershowitz


david-sullivan.blogspot.com
 

It seems peculiar to ask, 'how do I know such a right exists', or, 'what is the nature of this right', rather than, 'should such rights be established and enforced, and if so how?'

That is to say, there seems to be something peculiar about epistemic or ontological debates about rights of any kind (as opposed to values or properties that may be held to warrant such rights) that do not ground themselves in systems of enforcement. Rights only exist in their exercise (that is their ontological condition). Human rights are not properties of humans, but practices of humans.

Humans may be intrinsically (or relationally) valuable in certain ways, or possess particular properties that would appear to make the granting of certain rights imperative, but such rights themselves may only come into being within a framework that realizes the forms of their observance.

After no amount of searching the starry heavens above or the moral law within will we stumble upon 'human rights' (though such searching may inspire or compel us to establish and enforce such, human rights do not hang there like so much evasive dust). We will find human rights in our laws and in the conduct of our lives. I do not think this a flatly obvious or trivial claim - to change our lives our laws must change, and vice versa.
 

Note that strictly speaking the term "epistemic" does not mean the same thing as "epistemological," though these days the two are often confused.

"Epistemic" pertains to justified belief, "epistemological" to ways of knowing.

I take Michael Perry to be making an "epistemic" point, not an epistemological point.

He does not ask how non-religious affirmations of human rights can be known, but how they can be justified. He claims that non-religious warrants fail, because they are insufficient. This is more nearly a logical than an epistemological point.

My argument for a non-religious, pragmatist reading of the Golden Rule (Theology Today, October 2006), as mentioned in the previous thread, is designed to counter Perry precisely at the epistemic level.

I show that universal ethical norms are implicit in our discursive practices and suggest that if so, this warrant should be sufficient to meet Perry's objections.

George Hunsinger, Princeton Theological Seminary, and founder, National Religious Campaign Against Torture (nrcat.org)
 

The structure of the Perry argument (as summarized by Elberle) seems to depend on the proposition that "if God loves us, then each person has equal and inherent worth."

Although he claims that this avoids the Euthyphro problem, I think it is still squarely on the horns.

The problem is this: why should being loved by God change the amount of moral worth a person has? Is it because worth is defined as that which is loved by God (in which case it is an arbitrary property, with all the traditional faults of Divine Command Theory) or is there some external factor that makes beings beloved of God possess moral worth (such as God's own worth or goodness)? If the second is the case, the Perry/Elberle thesis fails, because we still need a normative ground apart from God's love.

I'd be very interested to hear either of their responses to this point.
 

Dismissing 3 as a social phenomenon seems awfully arrogant . I agree it's irrelevant philosophically, but for many people's conceptions of justice it's completely central (if baffling to me personally). I just graduated from Virginia Tech and read thousands and thousands of banners and messages from people all around the world -- the most frequently expressed idea was that a belief in God was central and necessary to our morality and happiness. Such expression is probably really 2., but those expressing it sure don't think so.
I'm not questioning the soundness of the philosophical arguemnts you made, just that if you want to convince people who think 3. that it isn't the answer to this question, then you're going to have to do it with something other than philosophy.
 

It seems that there are two parts to Michael Perry's argument.

He claims (1) that universal ethical norms cannot logically be upheld by non-religious warrants, and (2) that they can be so upheld on the basis of religious warrants.

I think the first claim is false, but that the second is fairly obvious.

If this discussion is supposed to be about Perry's claims, however, most of the comments in this thread are actually irrelevant.
 

Hunsinger: "'Epistemic' pertains to justified belief, 'epistemological' to ways of knowing."

This isn't a standard distinction, at least among epistemologists, who concern themselves with both justification and knowledge (see, e.g., here). They would use "epistemic" to mean pertaining to either justification or to knowledge, and "epistemological" to refer to mean pertaining to the study of justification or knowledge.
 

Chris,
Yes, of course the two are interconnected, though I think my way of making the distinction holds, because "epsitemic" pertains primarily to "warranted belief." Not to questions like, "How do we know that there are human rights?' (See e.g.,here.)
 

Thanks for putting straight my careless usage. I was considering epistemological and ontological debates about human rights, and it was these that struck me as peculiar.

Nonetheless, it still seems that to ask how a right can be justified implies asking what such a right is and how we know what it is. And so the epistemic point still seems peculiar in the way I describe above. For the vital issue in the discourse of human rights would seem to be how to promote the practice of human rights.

While questions about whether 'universal ethical norms [can or] cannot logically be upheld by non-religious warrants' may be 'philosophically interesting', it is surely not what is most practically pressing. For what is the force of logic here? As human rights come into being through their exercise, their justification is of value only in as much as such justification serves to promote their exercise. And indeed it might, but I would be surprised to find anyone who was not already convinced of the desirability of enforcing human rights being persuaded by epistemic force. Surely, 'poetic', 'rhetorical', 'affective', 'religious' force, or even claims of self-evidence are as effective in this connection (even if philosophically incoherent)?

Of course, challenging people to think through the philosophical issues entailed is likely to stimulate their ethical imaginations, and I certainly wouldn't suggest that such philosophical challenges be abandoned. Rather, I suggest that the most forceful justification of human rights is their practice.
 

George Hunsinger,

Is it that we're talking about moral claims being logically upheld?

If so, then I suppose I agree that both religious and non-religious warrants can be upheld logically.

I had thought that our hosts were discussing the foundations of our moral beliefs and whether or not those can be justified (or warranted).

It seems to me that Perry was too.

I'm not trying to split hairs, but it doesn't seem that atheists or theists are able to justify the normative foundations or status of morality.

That is to say that when atheists reduce moral statements to evolutionary explanations, the normativity is lost. Several atheists have acknowledged this in the course of this overall discussion, (in the several threads on the topic), and have said that there really is no such ontological thing as "morality."

And when theists go about justifying morality, they run right into the Euthyphro dilemma.

But I have little doubt that moral claims (and perhaps even their warrants) can be logically upheld, this just seem distinct from these sorts of questions.

As far as the knowledge of God's existence being just as elusive as knowledge of morality, I'm not so much worried about that. I mean if someone couldn't bring themselves to drop the actual existence of normativity, (as Tom Panian did in his 8:32 post, I think sincerely?), then faith in God would make the normative status of morality have ontological ground, (at least perhaps in an abductive way)...maybe, if it weren't for that damned dilemma.

Attempts to overcome the Euthyphro dilemma, from what I've seen, always at least implicitly rely on some objective understanding of morality, even if they try to smuggle in into God's "nature." But it seems that we wouldn't be warranted in calling God's nature good, but only in calling it...God's nature.

I agree that moral claims, and their warrant, can be logically upheld. But it seems that the discussion cuts a little deeper than that.

If you understood the discussion the same way I did, then I apologize for splitting hairs on the word "logical."
 

miuw-
Well, I haven't read Michael Perry's new book, but in The Meaning of Human Rights (Oxford, 2000), he does make an argument that has practical and not merely philosophical significance. His philosophical objection is in fact motivated by a practical moral concern.

The epistemic question arises, for him, precisely in the context of considering tribalism. Tribalism often goes hand in hand, as he shows in almost unbearable detail, with barbarism.

Perry sees no way to overcome, on non-religious grounds, the potent mix of tribalism and barbarism as they lead to atrocities.

Part of the problem with Perry's argument is that he fails to distinguish an "epistemic" concern (in my sense of the term) from the problem of motivation.

I take him to be making both an epistemic point and a motivational point, namely, that a non-religious ethic fails on both counts.

I don't have time to unpack the motivational question here, but I think it can at least be said:

(1) that this is a murky matter regardless of whether one operates with religious or non-religous warrants,
(2) that religious warrants can provide strong motivation but oftan fail to do so,
(3) that non-religious warrants are by no means necessarily lacking in motivational power, and
(4) that anyone who cares about universal human rights should care about amplifying (3) as opposed to trying to discredit it.
 

George,

I'm not sure what you mean by "warrant." Plantinga uses it as a technical term meaning the property that converts true belief into knowledge. But it is more colloquially used to refer to what is permitted. In the Fourth Amendment, for instance, a warrant is a formal permission to perform a search.

(I'm also not sure what Andy means by "warrant," which is why I noted above that I would prefer "ontological ground" or "truthmaker.")

Epistemologists would say that "epistemic" issues cover when beliefs are justified, when beliefs amount to knowledge, how we can know things, when beliefs are rational, when beliefs are warranted, and so on. Justification and knowledge are the biggies. So I still don't understand what distinction you're drawing.
 

Jay J: "Attempts to overcome the Euthyphro dilemma, from what I've seen, always at least implicitly rely on some objective understanding of morality, even if they try to smuggle in into God's 'nature.' But it seems that we wouldn't be warranted in calling God's nature good, but only in calling it...God's nature."

First off, I'm not quite sure what you mean by "objective understanding of morality." If God's nature is objective, and it's the ground for morality, then morality is objective too.

The argument I sketch isn't trying to show that God's nature is the ultimate source and ontological ground of goodness, value, and obligation; I'm only trying to show that it could be such a ground. God's nature has one big qualification for being a truthmaker for moral claims: it exists necessarily. To see if God's nature really is such a ground, you'd have to see if he really acts in the ways an all-good being would act, whether he seems to be worthy of absolute allegiance, and those sorts of questions. My point is that theism at least has a candidate for the ultimate ground of necessary moral obligations--albeit a candidate whose credentials can be questioned. But materialism doesn't even have a candidate, and that's a mark against it.
 

Well, George, I am with you on points one, two, three and four. And certainly it seems to me that the issue of motivation is the key one.

Epistemic arguments, religious or non-relgious, may increase or decrease individual or institutional motivation to observe human rights, of course, but the conclusion of these arguments is of secondary significance.

And if this remains a murky matter, I think it is because human rights are institutional and cultural artifacts, and practical expressions formed in response to constellations of values ever more widely felt by human beings over the past three hundred years or so. However warranted are the rights fashioned in response to these values (and clearly they have been very variously warranted), these values, ultimately, are chosen.

As for the 'overcoming' of 'tribalism', I think this, too, is more a matter of practice and less one of argument (though arguing is an important practice). If human rights are more widely upheld, as the institutional and behavioral formations that bring them into being are more broadly established, then people globally will find themselves in situations that discipline them as 'human subjects', as the bearers of human rights. If humans are more widely recognised in this way, I think it likely that they will more widely recognise others in this way, and the values from which human rights emerge will be more widely and deeply held.

Of course, there is no guarantee that such values will be ever more widely chosen or that such institutions will flourish - neither reason nor religion can determine this.
 

Chris,

I'm merely assuming the distinction between justification and knowledge.

I'm also assuming that in certain cultural and historical circumstances a person may be justified in holding beliefs that eventually can be shown to be false.

A warranted belief is a belief for which sufficient reasons can be given to hold it when that belief has not been refuted even if others do not hold it and consider it to be implausible. I think of Geertz here and of Davidson.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is a standard view, and also one that accords with common sense.
 

To see if God's nature really is such a ground, you'd have to see if he really acts in the ways an all-good being would act, whether he seems to be worthy of absolute allegiance, and those sorts of questions.

Which presumes an external standard for judging whether God is deserving of allegiance, and deciding what an "all-good being" would generally do. Euthyphro once again, I think. So it doesn't work unless you have an external, non-theistic normative ground against which to assess the goodness of God's nature.
 

miuw,
In my remark about murkiness, I was thinking about the complex sources of human sympathy and empathy toward others in a moral context.

Human rights may or may not be a cultural and institutional artifact. Certainly any one who believes in God, as I do, could not see them merely in that way.

If by "practice" you mean something like moral training, then I'm with you. Cultural and institutional factors certainly play a strong role on that score, and have a lot to do with inducing moral dispositions of sympathy and empathy.

And in general I"m pleased that we can agree on so much.
 

M.: "Which presumes an external standard for judging whether God is deserving of allegiance, and deciding what an 'all-good being' would generally do. Euthyphro once again, I think. So it doesn't work unless you have an external, non-theistic normative ground against which to assess the goodness of God's nature."

I think the process would work this way: we have a bunch of views about our moral obligations, right and wrong, good and bad, and the like. We wonder whether the ultimate ground for these claims is God's nature. So we take those views and see if they match up with what else we can tell about God's nature. The mere fact that we need to start out possessing some moral views doesn't mean that they are ontologically grounded in something other than God.
 

"I'm merely assuming the distinction between justification and knowledge."

Good.

"I'm also assuming that in certain cultural and historical circumstances a person may be justified in holding beliefs that eventually can be shown to be false."

Falliblism about justification. Also good.

"A warranted belief is a belief for which sufficient reasons can be given to hold it when that belief has not been refuted even if others do not hold it and consider it to be implausible."

That sounds a lot like justification. Not a problem.

What I don't understand is how you're using these distinctions to explain what Perry is up to.
 

I think the process would work this way: we have a bunch of views about our moral obligations, right and wrong, good and bad, and the like. We wonder whether the ultimate ground for these claims is God's nature. So we take those views and see if they match up with what else we can tell about God's nature. The mere fact that we need to start out possessing some moral views doesn't mean that they are ontologically grounded in something other than God.

I have trouble following you here; there seems to be a lurking is/ought problem. Tell me this; at what point in this process do we ground the demandingness of these moral views? Were they obligatory before? Did they only become obligatory once we identified them as corresponding with God's nature? Either way, what gave them this property?
 

Hi Chris,

I just don't see how God's existence can ground morality. The most recent entry on the site essentially expresses the same concern.

I guess since the entries are always updated, I should say that the entry is entitled, "Irrelevant God?"

God's existence may be objective, but so is mine.

It doesn't ground morality because I have certain preferences, intuitions, and loves.

I realize God is supposed to be very powerful, and created the universe and all, but just because God is sooo much more powerful than me does not make his wishes objectively right.

Just because His views objectively exist doesn't mean his views posses normative "rightness" any more than your view have moral rightness.

You and I objectively exist, and for argument's sake, let's say so does God. Our wishes objectively exist, and so does God's.

But nothing follows about what we ought to do with any more force than what we ought to do by any evolutionary account.

God has allot of might, but that doesn't make him right.

If He said rape was good, I wouldn't believe him.

If we appeal to God's "good" nature, then we're cheating since we're smuggling an "objective" (this only means "aside from subjects") understanding of good into God's nature. We can't talk about God's nature being good without understanding it aside from subjects. God is a being, and individual, a subject, at least in the Judeo-Christian sense, which is the God we're talking about.

So basically, I think I really do understand your claim.

I just disagree that God's candidacy for grounding morality is a winning campaign. Therefore it's of no lasting value, and theism isn't better off than atheism, at the end of the day, in spite of the attempt, or the candidacy.

If we can see that, then we might be tempted to agree with Tamanaha, which is that atheism and theism both fail to justify the foundations of morality, but these problems just show up at different times in their respective systems.
 

"[A]t what point in this process do we ground the demandingness of these moral views? Were they obligatory before? Did they only become obligatory once we identified them as corresponding with God's nature? Either way, what gave them this property?"

We've established the ontological ground for our views about moral obligations (as we see it) if we decide that God's nature fits well enough with our views. But if these obligations are real, then they were obligatory all along. What gave them this property? If God's nature is the proper grounding, then it did (though we might, before thinking about it carefully, have been ignorant of the connection). If not, then they seem to be ungrounded.
 

Chris,
If I understnd Perry rightly, he's claiming:

(1) that non-religious warrants are insufficient to justify a belief in universal human rights, and
(2) that they are also insufficient as ethical motivators.

I base these preceptions on the earlier book. I have the impression from this discussion that he may be making other claims at this point.

In any case, as far as I can see, his objections non-religious warrants (=justifying reasons) are, as lawyers like to say, "overly broad."
 

Can you explain to me how this is different from identifying an individual human being as having a very good nature, and then claiming that his nature ontologically grounds morality? Let me ask like this: if I could identify a particular human being who more closely fit with our socially-agreed-upon concepts of morality than the being we are identifying as God (leave to the side, for the moment, the huge problems of proof here), would that human being have a better claim to being the ground of morality than God?

If your answer is no, I think you need to explain what is it about God, other than that his nature corresponds with social-definitions of virtue, that makes him a candidate for a normative ground.

If your answer is yes, I think you need to identify why our social norms did not obligate behavior until we identified a particular virtuous individual who embodied them.
 

in case it isn't clear, my last comment was addressed to chris.
 

Jay J: "If we appeal to God's 'good' nature, then we're cheating since we're smuggling an 'objective' (this only means "aside from subjects") understanding of good into God's nature. We can't talk about God's nature being good without understanding it aside from subjects. God is a being, and individual, a subject, at least in the Judeo-Christian sense, which is the God we're talking about."

Well, I agree that to speak about God being good, we need to understand goodness independently of our understanding of God. But that doesn't mean that we need to have an ultimate ontological grounding for morality that is independent of God. Think of it this way: to speak informatively of Superman being Clark Kent, we have to have a grasp of Clark-Kent-ness that is independent of our grasp of Superman-ness. But that doesn't mean that they're not ultimately the same thing.
 

m.: "Can you explain to me how this is different from identifying an individual human being as having a very good nature, and then claiming that his nature ontologically grounds morality? Let me ask like this: if I could identify a particular human being who more closely fit with our socially-agreed-upon concepts of morality than the being we are identifying as God (leave to the side, for the moment, the huge problems of proof here), would that human being have a better claim to being the ground of morality than God?"

No, because human beings only exist contingently, and in order to be necessarily true, moral statements need a necessarily-existent truthmaker.
 

I don't think that works, Chris. It is not necessarily true that God's nature would correspond with our moral intuitions. There are possible universes in which they could differ.

So, is the answer to the followup question that the difference between God-as-ground and good-person-as-ground is that God exists necessarily and people only contingently? Because that is a questionable claim; a universe without a good God is quite conceivable.
 

"It is not necessarily true that God's nature would correspond with our moral intuitions. There are possible universes in which they could differ."

That's true, but our moral intuitions might be fallible in those worlds (they surely are in ours, anyway).

"So, is the answer to the followup question that the difference between God-as-ground and good-person-as-ground is that God exists necessarily and people only contingently? Because that is a questionable claim; a universe without a good God is quite conceivable."

Oh, sorry, forgot to answer that. That's right. God's necessity is the key. And people can question it, of course, just as they can question God's existence--in fact, questioning God's necessity just is questioning his existence, if we understand the term "God" in the classical way. We need to distinguish conceivability from possibility; conceivability might be a good guide to possibility, but it's not a perfect one.
 

Okay, but now you are just arguing for a fairly standard revised-Divine-Command-Theory concept of goodness being defined by God's nature, irrespective of human beliefs. (With all the normal flaws; if we were to discover that, contrary to present assumptions, God loved rape, then that would be morally good.) This is far removed from the Perry/Eberle thesis, which I thought we were discussing, which claims that God's love, in and of itself, is an ontological ground. My point was that, contrary to their claim, that is still perfectly subject to the Euthyphro problem. It is acceptable, if less than ideal, to respond to the dilemma as you have, by choosing one of its branches. They claimed not to be doing so.

And I would add that, if it depends on the notion that God not only exist but necessarily must exist, your ontological grounding is hardly more secure than the claim that human beings are just innately worthy of respect regardless of the existence of God. In the quest to avoid contingency, you threw a whopping big one into the mix (the contingency of whether the existence of God is in fact necessary).
 

"[N]ow you are just arguing for a fairly standard revised-Divine-Command-Theory concept of goodness being defined by God's nature, irrespective of human beliefs."

I'm perfectly OK with holding to a standard sort of view. But it depends what you mean by "defined." I don't think that the term "good" just means whatever fits with God's nature; I think, though, that God is necessarily good, and that his nature supplies the basic nature of goodness. But underlying nature is distinct from meaning; the underlying nature of iron is to have 26 protons, but that's not what the term "iron" means.

"[I]f we were to discover that, contrary to present assumptions, God loved rape, then that would be morally good."

Certainly our moral faculties are fallible, so they are subject to correction by others, or by God. But there are limits. If we were to find that out, then I would say that God actually isn't all-good; I'd be puzzled, and would be unhappy about the lack of an ontological ground for the claim that rape is wrong. To put the point another way: my intuition that rape is wrong is probably stronger than my intuition that moral claims need ontological grounding. But I do still have the intuition that moral claims need ontological grounding, and it's a pretty strong intuition.

I agree that Eberle & Perry need to deal with the Euthyphro problem; I said above that the argument I sketched was broader, but not a lot broader, than theirs.

Sorry if my reference to God's necessity took you by surprise, but it was a part of my first comment over on Bainbridge's blog. It's a pretty standard part of traditional ideas of God, I think.
 

Okay then. For me, it is a hard enough claim to establish that moral claims have truth values at all; establishing their necessary truth seems positively Sysiphean.

(And the same goes for God's necessity; it seems hard enough to convincingly demonstrate his existence, let alone that it would not be possible for him not to exist.)

As to your discussion of Euthyphro, now you've got me positively confused. If it is possible for God to want something that is wrong (even if he does not, in fact, have such a nature) then by definition you are judging God's goodness by an external standard, which further presumes that you have some other ontological ground than God. If God is the ground, he just cannot be wrong. If you don't agree with this, I don't think we are using the term ontological ground to mean the same thing, and I am frankly curious to hear you explain how you understand the term.

For the record, I think of a ontological ground as the truth-maker of a moral claim; that thing or quality with the unique property that, if you alter it, you may also alter the truth value of a moral proposition. So, in the same sense that I am the ontological ground of claims about my existence, my location, my behavior, etc (because changing me, from existent to not, from one place to another, also changes the truth values of propositions about me), so a normative ontological ground would be that which gives moral statements their truth or falsity; that thing by virtue of which they are true or false. I agree with Tamahana that such grounds for moral claims are elusive in the extreme; and I disagree with Perry/Elberle that God or God's love makes them any easier to locate, unless one is willing to accept the strong form of Divine Command Theory, wherein the content of morality is necessarily defined by God's will or God's nature.
 

"For me, it is a hard enough claim to establish that moral claims have truth values at all; establishing their necessary truth seems positively Sysiphean."

The assumption that moral claims have truth values is the starting point, so if I don't have you there, I'm not sure what to do! I think that moral claims need to be necessarily true, not just contingent, because of the nature of hypothetical coutnerexamples. We test our moral principles by concocting wild scenarios--kidnappings by music lovers, visits to alien planets, and the like. But that only makes sense if the moral principles themselves would still be true in these very-different possible worlds.

"If it is possible for God to want something that is wrong (even if he does not, in fact, have such a nature) then by definition you are judging God's goodness by an external standard, which further presumes that you have some other ontological ground than God."

I don't think God can actually want something that is wrong, and I don't think it is possible that he could like rape. But you asked what I would do if it turned out, contrary to our present assumption, that God likes rape. I told you what my reaction would be. But the conceivability of that happening is distinct from it being possible.

The fact that I have criteria that I can use to assess God's goodness doesn't mean that God isn't necessarily good. Take Superman and Clark Kent--necessarily the same guy, but we can ask meaningfully whether Superman meets the criteria we have for Clark-Kent-ness. Or take iron having 26 protons--it's necessary, but we can still ask meaningfully whether iron nuclei really have 26 protons.

"[A] normative ontological ground would be that which gives moral statements their truth or falsity; that thing by virtue of which they are true or false."

Sounds good to me.

"I disagree with Perry/Elberle that God or God's love makes them any easier to locate, unless one is willing to accept the strong form of Divine Command Theory, wherein the content of morality is necessarily defined by God's will or God's nature."

Also sounds good to me; the chief reason why it would make sense to care about our status in God's eyes would be if God's attitude was necessarily correct--i.e., if God were necessarily good. But the main reason to think that would be because God's nature is the ground of goodness.
 

One quick question: what is the truth-maker for the claim "God is good"? Or is that statement analytically true?

Unless it is analytically true, I don't see how you can maintain the claim that God is a normative ground. His nature might, in your system, provide good evidence of what is morally required, but it wouldn't be definitive of moral value. If we can change God's nature (even hypothetically) without changing the content of morality, than he is not an ontological ground, as we have defined it, because he is not the truth-maker of moral claims.
 

"[W]hat is the truth-maker for the claim 'God is good'? Or is that statement analytically true?"

I think God is the truth-maker, and that the statement is necessarily true, but that it's not analytically true--true just in virtue of the meaning of the terms.

"His nature might, in your system, provide good evidence of what is morally required, but it wouldn't be definitive of moral value."

We need to distinguish providing a definition from supplying the ultimate ontological ground. The definition of iron isn't something with 26 protons per nucleus, but that's iron's ultimate nature--ultimately what makes iron iron is the fact that it has the number of protons per nuclei that it does.

"If we can change God's nature (even hypothetically) without changing the content of morality, than he is not an ontological ground, as we have defined it, because he is not the truth-maker of moral claims."

That can't be right--think of iron and having 26 protons per nucleus. We can conceive of that not being true, but it's in fact not possible, and 26-proton-hood is in fact the ontological ground of ironhood.
 

That can't be right--think of iron and having 26 protons per nucleus. We can conceive of that not being true, but it's in fact not possible, and 26-proton-hood is in fact the ontological ground of ironhood.

Why is that not possible? There could be a possible universe with different physical laws than ours, where there is a substance that resembles iron in all respects except that it has 27 protons (or indeed, no protons at all). You are assuming that they physical laws of our universe are necessary properties of all possibile universes, which is a peculiar meaning of the word "possible."

This is why I have a problem with "God is necessarily good." First of all, it either is its own truthmaker (and hence is analytically true) or it depends upon an external truthmaker, which would be the ontological ground of morality, not God. I just don't see how there is another option.

If God is the truthmaker of morality, than changing God changes morality. How can that not be true?
 

"Why is that not possible? There could be a possible universe with different physical laws than ours, where there is a substance that resembles iron in all respects except that it has 27 protons (or indeed, no protons at all)."

I can't get into all the reasons here--I'm relying on reasons like those Kripke gives in Naming and Necessity. Use Superman and Clark Kent, or Hesperus and Phosphorus, or heat and mean kinetic energy, if those are better. Something necessarily, but not analytically, true.

The world where laws are different wouldn't have iron in it, I think. For what it's worth, I do think that the laws of nature are contingent.

"[I]t either is its own truthmaker (and hence is analytically true)..."

We need to distinguish the proposition "God is good" from the entity, God. I think the entity is the truthmaker for the proposition. I'm not sure quite what we should say about the truthmaker of analytic statements--perhaps it's the language use that makes sentences true by definition--but it wouldn't be the proposition itself.

"If God is the truthmaker of morality, than changing God changes morality."

I don't think I denied that. I only denied that God, or morality, can change. I also suggested that my intuitions about certain propositions of morality are probably stronger than my intuitions about moral statements needing truthmakers.
 

Hi Chris,

I think you said something in one of your posts (addressed to M) to the effect of,

"The assumption that moral claims have truth values is the starting point, so if I don't have you there, I'm not sure what to do! I think that moral claims need to be necessarily true..."

See I think we have to start out agnostic about whether or not moral statements have truth value.

They don't at first glance, and since it's not obvious that they do, I think it must be demonstrated that they do.

We could after all, just conclude that morality is bunk, and that all normativity is, is a result of natural selection, the evolution of cooperation and so on. Then we may be like some of the atheists in this thread who have acknowledged that normativity isn't really "real."

If we presumed that moral statements were true, then we would be in need of an explanation.

However if we hope that moral statements are true, then we're in search of explanations that will give our hope credibility.

Even if we find such explanations, they won't get the job done if they don't do the justifying.

I think the dilemma is alive and well.

However there are some faith systems who believe in God but see God as more of a representative of morality, a showing us the way sort of thing. That avoids the dilemma.

Someone could still ask for an justification for morality, and it would still be forthcoming, but it would avoid the dilemma, and retain faith in "God."

Also you seemed less than...convinced about moral statements needing truthmakers.

I may not understand you correctly, but if I do, I agree.

What I mean is that a truthmaker, to me, must only be reference to language "all bachelors are unmarried" or empirically warranted statements like "metals expand when heated." Of course legal statements like "murder is illegal" can be tested as well.

The statement "Murder is wrong" however doesn't have the obvious truth value that the above statements do.

Anyway, I'm not married to this position. I'm open to being persuaded.

Have a good Labor Day weekend.

Jay
 

George Hunsinger : And in general I"m pleased that we can agree on so much.

Well, George, I think that this is all that matters in this connection. All of the argument and debate I find fascinating and stimulating, but what matters is that one values such rights and is moved to nurture them.

To put it the other way round, do you think that if someone here, or elsewhere, presented you with an argument that forced you to admit that your position on human rights was logically incoherent you would drop your convictions? Surely not. What matters is to belong to a community of practice - the members of this community may ground or justify their values in all manner of ways, but they all value each other in such away that they practice their lives so as to give themselves and others the possibility to flourish.
 

I think at this point the argument may be shifting far more to disputes about philosophy of language and naming than about the nature of morality, which might be interesting, but pretty far off topic. I haven't read Kripke recently enough to instantly follow your reference, but I do see what you are trying to say. I'm sure we could both be far more precise about our meta-ethical assumptions.

For my own part, I tend to take a rather Wittgensteinian line on the whole thing, and assume that moral language serves a variety of different purposes, in a very context-sensitive way. I was trying to focus on those senses that are classical, in that they are obligating, rule-like, and have truth values.

I would note that there seems to be a great tension between your insistence that moral statements must have truth values, and your relatively weak intuitions towards their needing truth-makers. Presumably all propositional sentences, including moral assertions, must be true in virtue of something. To the degree you harbor some skepticism towards the existence of moral truthmakers, it seems like you should also harbor some moral skepticism, tending towards a feeling that moral statements are non-cognitive.

But it has been a fascinating discussion. It seems like there is fairly universal agreement here that the Perry/Elberle claim doesn't do anything really new for moral ontology at a deep level; it is still subject to Euthyphro, and it merely shifts the ball with respect to the chain of causality from God's goodness to moral law, without making the claim for that goodness any easier or harder than it has always been.
 

"Historical: the idea of human rights is rooted, at least in the West, in Christian doctrine. There’s no doubt that this is true, if only because Christianity was so pervasive in Western thought before the Enlightenment. (The modern idea of human rights is an Enlightenment idea, as Perry has noted, but the Enlightenment itself has Christian roots.)"

If the west is all you know, then the west must be the origin of all there is worth knowing. And the Italians invented pasta!

Aside from the absurd defenses of religious "philosophy", this whole debate is just bizarre. All religions begin with stories, with language, and language changes. To examine the logic of religion is to historicize it, and that process weakens it by default.
So now the theists argue that the atheists have "faith" in human value, and the atheists, wanting to be thought of as nice people let that absurdity slide by. But there is no philosophical logic to faith and no absolute value to anything. But for better and worse, faith is inevitable and unavoidable. It's a habit, a nervous tick that makes life go more smoothly. It's the narrative that gives our lives a forward motion. But that faith can be in our own ideas and dreams as much as an imaginary god. Bush and Rumsfeld both operate on faith, but Rumsfeld is an atheist. And so is Karl Rove. Look over the aporias and elisions in these posts, on every site, all papered over by rhetoric: papered over by acts of faith. And if I have to read another argument by Catholic, now "Judeo-Christian" bigots [aren't you forgetting one?] I'm gonna puke. And where the f**k is Amartya Sen to set these people right?

Faith: arguing from linguistic foundations as if language were the world. That's the only inevitably recurring problem we face. And we face it agian and again. To be an adult is to take some pleasure in the inevitable and keep a clear head.
Faith is inevitable; skepticism and curiosity keep it in check. They are the foundations of knowledge.
 

M.: just one final comment (Andy asked me to post something as a guest, so we can continue the discussion over there)--I do have very strong inutitions that moral claims need truthmakers; it's just that my intuitions on some moral questions are even stronger.
 

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