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Problems with Atheism

 
 
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 10:29 am
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
Your judgment is based on your culture. I haven't seen anyone who believes in a absolute system of morality propose a way around this problem.

Well, let's turn over the microphone to John Stuart Mill. I think he has come pretty close to proposing a way around the problem.

In his essay 'Utilitarianism', John Stuart Mill wrote:
IT HAS already been remarked, that questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to all first principles; to the first premises of our knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct. But the former, being matters of fact, may be the subject of a direct appeal to the faculties which judge of fact- namely, our senses, and our internal consciousness. Can an appeal be made to the same faculties on questions of practical ends? Or by what other faculty is cognisance taken of them?

Questions about ends are, in other words, questions what things are desirable. The utilitarian doctrine is, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end. What ought to be required of this doctrine- what conditions is it requisite that the doctrine should fulfil- to make good its claim to be believed?

The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it. The only proof that a sound is audible, is that people hear it: and so of the other sources of our experience. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it. If the end which the utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end, nothing could ever convince any person that it was so. No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require, that happiness is a good: that each person's happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness, therefore, a good to the aggregate of all persons. Happiness has made out its title as one of the ends of conduct, and consequently one of the criteria of morality.

Full essay

Mill's argument works for me. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
spendius
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 10:42 am
@Thomas,
It's St. Thomas Aquinas isn't it?

It's all a bit vague what with hypochondriacs, self deniers, despondancy mongers and askesis genrally either self inflicted or by an outside agent.

They say henpecked husbands love it. I knew a woman who used to get her husband angry enough to give her a slapping because it was the only way to arouse her sexually.

0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  3  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 10:56 am
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
You also make it clear you disagree with my position-- but you don't really explain why?

If it's true that I've accurately summarized your position, then I disagree with it only insofar as you contend that your position is based on "morality." It isn't. You really have the same position as David Hume: "morality" is nothing more than a collection of customs and habits and social conventions. Hume thought that it was extremely useful to have people believe in morality, and evidently you do as well. There's nothing wrong with that. As I said before, either your position is that there's an absolute morality or that there's no morality at all. You fall into the latter camp.

The problem comes in when you claim that you can act "morally," which, given your position, is something of a self-delusion. You may be acting in accordance with what you perceive to be "morality," but yours is a morality that has no moral force. If someone, out of habit or custom, eats his food with his fork in his left hand, we don't say that he's acting morally. Similarly, if you, out of habit or custom, think that murder is wrong, it's not because you're expressing some kind of moral judgment.

ebrown p wrote:
This is truly the crux of the matter-- how do we judge which of two systems of morality from two cultural contexts is better?

We are capable of using our reason to distinguish between competing moral claims.
spendius
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 01:52 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
We are capable of using our reason to distinguish between competing moral claims.


Hume didn't think so. He considered reason to be "perfectly inert". Book 111 of the Treatise begins by rejecting the view that moral distinctions can be derived by reason. So reason couldn't distinguish between moral claims. Reason has no emotion.

Quote:
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.


Treatise II, iii.3.

"Reason is a slave of the passions", is famous and is derived from Bayle's article on Ovid in the Dictionaire.

Moral distinctions, he claimed, are derived from a "moral sense". His focus is on characteristics which are useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others. Thus the comparison of dining etiquette with murder is too far of a stretch. It's the lowest form of sophistry.

"Sympathy" is the characteristic Hume invokes. He says that we have a natural tendency to " sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments". Innate and evolved or a Divine gift. Which we spurn in the "original sin" and thus cause our tribulations for which "God" is justly angry.

His system, particularly relating to property, where our sense of justice might be in oppostion to our feelings, is geared to the stabilty of the social structure. The latter having a higher position in his moral hierarchy presumably because social instability renders morality dysfunctional or even irrelevant.

0 Replies
 
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 03:27 pm
@joefromchicago,
Quote:
As I said before, either your position is that there's an absolute morality or that there's no morality at all. You fall into the latter camp.


This is simply, and demonstrably false; which is why you are stating it as an assertion with no evidence.

I don't claim an absolute morality, follow an absolute morality or even believe in an absolute morality. Yet, I have a strong sense of morality and follow a moral code. I offer myself as proof that one can have a real, meaningful morality without believing that it represents any "absolute truth".

You accusing me of being immoral because I don't believe in an absolute morality is rather reminiscent of religious people who claim (without proof) that you can't be moral without a belief in their understanding of God. (Which, if you care to look back, was one of the reasons that I started this thread).

Quote:
We are capable of using our reason to distinguish between competing moral claims.


I think the claim you are making here (correct me if I am wrong) that two reasonable people, no matter how different their cultural contexts, will reach the same conclusion when comparing two moral claims.

I claim, based on observation, that this is false-- unless of course you consider anyone who disagrees with you is unreasonable. It is obvious that on issue after issue, the main predictor of what conclusion you will reach is what culture you are a part of.

Could you give me a practical example-- What does reason conclude about abortion? Should society accept the practice of abortion?
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 04:01 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas,

From what I understand of Utilitarianism, it is pretty well in line with my personal sense of morality. It well defines human rights and offers a reason to treat people around me well. I might hold additional ideals, beyond happiness, have intrinsic value to me... but that is perhaps another discussion.

This, of course, does not change my rejection of the concept of absolute morality. After all, happiness is nothing more than a electrochemical reaction in an organ that evolved in animals to impact behavior in a way that good for survival.... in this way there is little difference between happiness and the other electrochemical reactions that evolved to impact our behavior-- namely lust, hatred or fear (although maybe these are all connected with happiness).

I find it interesting that the issue of Utilitarianism and Atheism are orthogonal. There is certainly no reason that there couldn't be a Utilitarian God (it would necessarily be a benevolent being).

Thomas
 
  2  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 04:53 pm
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
I find it interesting that the issue of Utilitarianism and Atheism are orthogonal. There is certainly no reason that there couldn't be a Utilitarian God (it would necessarily be a benevolent being).

Sure! He would be a pathetic incompetent of course, but he would still be a benevolent being.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 04:58 pm
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
This, of course, does not change my rejection of the concept of absolute morality. After all, happiness is nothing more than a electrochemical reaction in an organ that evolved in animals to impact behavior in a way that good for survival.... in this way there is little difference between happiness and the other electrochemical reactions that evolved to impact our behavior-- namely lust, hatred or fear (although maybe these are all connected with happiness).

... or vision, or hearing, or touching, or feeling, or smelling. That doesn't keep you from believing in absolutes like light, sound, weight, and temperature, and molecules in the air -- does it?
spendius
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 04:59 pm
@Thomas,
Thomas would be lost without this God of his to **** on.

God is the personification of the idea of how we ought to behave to get the best out of the paradise we happen to have landed in. It is easy to imagine Him being angry.
0 Replies
 
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 04:59 pm
@Thomas,
Quote:
He would be a pathetic incompetent of course, but he would still be a benevolent being.


Strange.... that describes me perfectly.
0 Replies
 
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:03 pm
@Thomas,
Quote:
... or vision, or hearing, or touching, or feeling, or smelling. That doesn't keep you from believing in absolutes like light, sound, weight, and temperature, and molecules in the air -- does it


Nice try Thomas... but no. Morality is not one of the five (or even six) senses.

I have met people from other cultures (and even from my own culture) and I have had strong and passionate disagreements over differences of morality.

I have never disagreed with anyone about the existence of light.

Light is quantifiable. Light is measurable. Light can even be detected and measured by machine (as can pressure, sound and odors). Yeah.


Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:06 pm
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
I have never disagreed with anyone about the existence of light.

You have never disagreed with anyone about the existence of morality either. At most, their morality was different from yours -- just as the light in Mexico is different than the light in Boston.
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:07 pm
@Thomas,
lol (when you propose a morality detecting machine, I will take this line of argument seriously).
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:11 pm
@ebrown p,
Oh, so before the invention of the photodiode, you wouldn't have taken the notion seriously that light was an absolute?
0 Replies
 
joefromchicago
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:14 pm
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
I don't claim an absolute morality, follow an absolute morality or even believe in an absolute morality. Yet, I have a strong sense of morality and follow a moral code. I offer myself as proof that one can have a real, meaningful morality without believing that it represents any "absolute truth".

But you also believe that your morality is just one among many, all of them deserving of the same respect, correct?

ebrown p wrote:
You accusing me of being immoral because I don't believe in an absolute morality is rather reminiscent of religious people who claim (without proof) that you can't be moral without a belief in their understanding of God. (Which, if you care to look back, was one of the reasons that I started this thread).

I never claimed that you were immoral. To be "immoral" is to act contrary to a code of morality. Given that you believe all morality is nothing more than habit or custom, there's nothing for you to act contrary to. As such, it is more accurate to say that you are amoral or non-moral.

ebrown p wrote:
Quote:
We are capable of using our reason to distinguish between competing moral claims.


I think the claim you are making here (correct me if I am wrong) that two reasonable people, no matter how different their cultural contexts, will reach the same conclusion when comparing two moral claims.

I'm glad to take the opportunity to correct you. You're wrong. There will always be people who disagree on moral issues. I do not, however, contend that, just because two people disagree, that means that both of them are correct.

ebrown p wrote:
Could you give me a practical example-- What does reason conclude about abortion? Should society accept the practice of abortion?

It's pointless to get into specifics of any issue, since it will simply reinforce the fact that people can always be found who will disagree on moral questions. I've never denied that. What I have denied is that the existence of that disagreement is evidence that there is no such thing as objective morality.
Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:18 pm
@joefromchicago,
joefromchicago wrote:
It's pointless to get into specifics of any issue, since it will simply reinforce the fact that people can always be found who will disagree on moral questions. I've never denied that. What I have denied is that the existence of that disagreement is evidence that there is no such thing as objective morality.

Analogously, half of all Americans disagree that Darwinian evolution ever happened. That isn't evidence against evolution being an objective fact, either.
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:22 pm
@Thomas,
You are dodging the question... I am claiming that there it not possible to resolve a significant moral disagreement using reason.

Abortion is a significant current issue that I believe reason is incapable of resolving. I am challenging you (since you claim that moral questions can be answered by reason) to use reason to resolve this issue.

My argument has nothing to do with the number of people who disagree. I am noting that when people disagree there is no objective way, not even reason, to resolve the disagreement outside of a specific cultural context.

Thomas
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:28 pm
@ebrown p,
ebrown p wrote:
I am claiming that there it not possible to resolve a significant moral disagreement using reason.

... and I'm claiming that, in the same way, you can't use reason to resolve your factual disagreements with creationists -- which is a very significant factual disagreement. Nothing about the impossibility you observe is specific to moral disagreements.

ebrown p wrote:
Abortion is a significant current issue that I believe reason is incapable of resolving. I am challenging you (since you claim that moral questions can be answered by reason) to use reason to resolve this issue.

I can't. But again, nothing about that is specific to the issue being moral. I also can't use reason to resolve the issue of whether there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. And yet, it is an absolute truth that there either is such life, or there isn't.

But now I'm going to pause for a bit and let you answer Joefromchicago's question. You seem to have difficulties with his challenges, so I'll give you the time to come up with a good response to them.
ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:53 pm
@Thomas,
Quote:
... and I'm claiming that, in the same way, you can't use reason to resolve your factual disagreements with creationists -- which is a very significant factual disagreement. Nothing about the impossibility you observe is specific to moral disagreements.


We have been over this material before-- I don't think there is anything new here. My assertion is that testable and measurable are the important differences between moral "facts" and scientific "facts".

Quote:
But now I'm going to pause for a bit and let you answer Joefromchicago's question. You seem to have difficulties with his challenges, so I'll give you the time to come up with a good response to them.


I don't know what you mean by Joefromchicago's question. I will try to answer again.

I have a strong sense of morality. I am faithful to my wife. I feel a strong sense of duty to my kids. I am motivated to work on political issues, particularly in issues of social justice.

This is a function of my sense of identity which is mostly shaped by my culture and my upbringing. The capacity for me to hold a moral stance as part of my culture (as separate from the specific ways my sense of morality differs from other humans) is shaped by evolution based on its survival value.

Joe seems to be claiming that I can't have this morality without believing in some "absolute morality".

Obviously I disagree with him on this (and my personal experience seems to back me up)... but we have expressed our point of disagreement, I am not sure we can go much further unless he wants to provide more evidence to back up the assertion he is making.

I assert, based on personal experience, that I can follow a strong system of morality without believing in any absolute moral truth.

I don't see any other question that he is raising. He did point out that then I have to accept that any other moral views are equal to mine. And sure... as far as any universal truth goes, this is true. Of course, the fact that my system of morality isn't backed by any universal truth doesn't mean I can't live by it, or act on it, or even fight for it.

I think I have answered everything Joe has raised. Am I missing anything?


ebrown p
 
  1  
Reply Tue 13 Apr, 2010 05:59 pm
@Thomas,
I was just thinking Thomas, strangely enough I think that my position in this argument is quite possible closer to yours, than Joe's is. You are proposing that happiness is the core of morality. In the quote you posted, Mill specifically argued that this was unprovable... other then there is no other possible core.

If you make happiness a reasonable foundation of morality, rather than a necessary foundation of morality... we are at the same place. I am happy with asking for logical consistency once we have chosen basic unprovable assertions.

I suspect that in practice, you and I have very similar moral principles and conclusions.
 

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