Moral Reasoning as an answer to Harris and Epicurus Part 2

My last post started an exploration of this difficult issue, and it needs some clarification before it can be further expanded.  Let me start with what I feel is a safe assumption.

In the U.S., the dominant moral philosophy is a sort of democratic relativism. Morality is mostly a private affair (unless it has crossed into the realm of legality). If a person believes a certain action is immoral, that person is free to manage their own life according to their beliefs, but any attempt to impose that morality on another person is met with resistance, unless enough people agree that an action is immoral, then society imposes morality by law, convention, or shame.

Morality, then, is seen as a matter of preference, and it only becomes a social force when it becomes a social preference. (In a system like this, there are always issues that fall into the middle of the consensus and then become a severely debated topic: abortion, homosexuality, internet piracy, etc. And often this leads to mildly conflicting statements like “I think it’s wrong, but I don’t think it should be illegal.)

Also, our current morality is mostly a pragmatic system: i.e. it answers the question “how should I live?” and produces practical answers. This is distinct from dogmatic moral systems which tend to make statements more about the nature of the world: i.e. “it is immoral to become intoxicated.”

So, our system is preferential, societal, and pragmatic. To be clear, I haven’t tried to establish this, merely explain it. So just go with it for now.

There’s nothing wrong with a system like this. It works. Sometimes it is not very logical, especially when viewed from a historical perspective (this is mostly my opinion), but morality does not necessarily have to be logical.

Now, here’s the important point: people like Harris, Epicurus, and other atheists have fairly often leveled the claim at religion that in such a world as ours, a deity must be either impotent, indifferent (or evil), or non-existent. Because the world is so full of evil.

This argument is not logical. It is akin to saying that God must be impotent, indifferent, or non-existent because he isn’t a Republican. If morality is an interrelated system of human preferences, why in the world should a deity follow it? (A moral system does not have to be logical, but a moral argument must be.)

And if morality is something more, where does it come from? It can’t come from the nature of reality, because you can’t logically get the way things ought to be from the way they are. (I covered this more in the previous post).

So, the dominant morality in our society is a distinctly human idea, and a pragmatic one; it is functional, but not dogmatic. For moral criticism to be leveled at a deity from this standpoint is patently absurd. You and I can agree all day long that it is a bad thing evil things to happen, but it does not logically follow that anyone else should, just because we do. The entire human race can decide that stealing is wrong, but, logically speaking, that does not make stealing wrong. When we try to add logic to the statement “stealing is wrong because. . .” we very quickly get lost in circles and semantics. We can easily say, “because it hurts other people.” But why is hurting others wrong? “Because I would not want it to happen to me.” But then we have only come back to your preferences.

Everyone knows it is wrong. But we have no logical reason other than everyone “feels that way”.  Either that feeling is merely a strangely universal preference, or there is some other force behind it: some spark of the divine.

And this, simply, is the catch-22 of Harris’s criticism. If we disbelieve in God because he is morally unacceptable to us, we must assume the existence of a morality that is higher than ourselves (i.e. supernatural) in order to do so.

The moral argument against the existence of a deity is logically inconsistent. In order for morality to serve as a basis for that claim, it must presuppose the existence of that which it seeks to deny.



About Derrick

Derrick lives and works in South Carolina where he teaches English at a technical college and raises his two small children with his wife, Danielle.
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2 Responses to Moral Reasoning as an answer to Harris and Epicurus Part 2

  1. Very interesting posts, including the last one as well. I think you raise a fair point: it seems moral beliefs might be intrinsically motivating without them being sufficiently motivating. This is the distinction between motivational judgment internalism and reasons judgment internalism; due to the action-guidingness of moral propositions, in stating a moral belief we are noting that it would be rational to act in accord with that belief, but perhaps we are not motivated to act in accord with that belief. So perhaps God recognizes the truth of certain moral propositions, but is not motivated to act in accord with them, due to a motivation to act for another belief, one incomprehensible to us.

    Of course, this would go against your claim that moral judgments are expressions of preference. I think the evidence is against such a metaethical theory. After all, it is meant to be an empirical theory in line with the grander project of philosophical naturalism, so if the evidence goes against non-cognitivism then there is good reason to hold that moral propositions state beliefs and not desires. The Frege-Geach problem has been the thorn in the side of the non-cognitivist, and while there have been some fantastical responses, they are just that. The problem is that we frequently state moral propositions in such a way that we are not expressing our preferences, but asking a question about morality, and non-cognitivism cannot explain this lacuna in their theory. The non-cognitivist must claim that when I ask, “I know stealing is wrong, but is it wrong to download free movies off the internet?” I am saying “if stealing boo! then downloading boo(!)?” This goes against how we experience moral dilemmas and moral reasoning, so arguing for non-cognitivism must be viewed as an up-hill battle.

    Also, that there is a distinction in action theory between motivational internalism and reasons internalism explains why there is injustice in the world. If motivational internalism was true then, in theory, there would not be injustice because moral reasons would function as causally efficacious laws of nature. But why should morality function causally? It would be irrational of me to eat a cheeseburger everyday, and this leads me to not eat a cheeseburger everyday, but this is not because that rational law is a causal law, it is because it is a evaluative reason, and I have requisite desires to act in accord with that reason. Moral reasons should function in the same way as rational reasons; indeed, I suspect that moral reasons are a subset of rational reasons of action.

  2. Derrick says:


    I think I follow your point, but I’m not sure about the idea of moral reasons for behavior being part of our rational reasons for behavior. At least not completely. That’s a really tricky question, though, I’ll have to think about it (and also carefully define my terms).

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