God, Morality, and Accountability
May 30, 2008 — 19:07

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Divine Command Existence of God Links  Comments: 36

Here’s a link to a recent debate between William Lane Craig and Louise Antony on whether or not God is necessary for morality. It was interesting for me since reading Craig’s debates and apologetics works helped get me into philosophy, and Antony was one of my professors when I was an undergraduate at The Ohio State University. Both are moral realists and affirm that there are objective moral truths. I didn’t find Craig’s arguments that God is necessary for morality to be convincing.
However, here’s one of his arguments which has some intuitive appeal and that I’d like to explore. He points out that if God does not exist, then there is no ultimate moral accountability. People will not ultimately get what they deserve, whether this be reward for a life well lived or punishment for horrendous evils. This seems to me to be correct. If naturalism is true, then even if there are objective moral truths, people will not ultimately get what they deserve.
But is there any reason to think the following?
1) If there are objective moral truths, then there will be some ultimate moral accountability.
There is no doubt something less satisfying (at least emotionally) with the naturalistic worldview, but I don’t know if I can think of any good reasons to believe that (1) is true. And if (1) is false, there is no problem for the naturalist.
Could we defend (1) just by appealing to intuition? Do most humans have a deep intuition that wrongs must be righted and vice versa? But this intuition is weak at best. I would hope for some more argument. Any suggestions?

Comments:
  • Michael S.

    You raise a great question which I’m unable to answer. But I do want to want to question your claim that, “if God does not exist, then there is no ultimate moral accountability. People will not ultimately get what they deserve, whether this be reward for a life well lived or punishment for horrendous evils.” Although your contention seems plausible, aren’t there non-theistic worldviews according to which people, in some sense, get what they deserve. I have in mind some forms of eastern religion that appeal to the notion of karma. I know relatively little about such wordlviews, thus I could be mistaken.

    May 30, 2008 — 21:07
  • Matthew Mullins

    I can’t think of any reason to think that 1 is true. I just can’t see a connection between final desert and moral ends? For example, why think anyone deserves a reward for a “life well lived”. Isn’t a life well lived its own reward, with nothing over and above that deserved? You don’t get rewards for the things you ought to be doing in the first place. To suggest that people deserve to get some reward for a life well lived suggests that there is something superogatory about such a life.
    You might be correct in thinking that we have a basic intuition that wrongs be righted, but that doesn’t always included seeing wrongdoers punished. It’s often the case that wrongs are righted by redress being made to the victim.

    May 30, 2008 — 23:00
  • Drapetomanic

    This discussion is a rabbit hole. It reminds me of arguments for the existence of God. Think about the similar nature of the two questions:
    “Does God exist?”
    “Does morality exist?”
    Both put the burden of proof upon anyone arguing for the existence of.
    I’m trying to think of how we could start with any factual premises and conclude from them that morality exists. How could that be achieved?

    May 30, 2008 — 23:44
  • Raymond Aldred

    Drapetomanic,
    I don’t think it’s that much of a rabbit hole. Nobody is claiming that there are objective truths, just that the conditional is true. So assume if we assume that there are objective moral truths, then Andrew wants to know if one can reasonably hold as a consequent that there is ultimate moral accountability.
    Now onto the actual question as stated by Andrew. We can contra pose (1) by saying that if there is no ultimate moral accountability then there is no objective truths. Suppose there is no ultimate moral accountability, that is to say nobody gets rewarded for living their lives well, but it seems plausible that some of these people can live their lives in proportion to objective moral truths. This seems to be a counter example to (1).

    May 31, 2008 — 2:17
  • . . .why think anyone deserves a reward for a “life well lived”. Isn’t a life well lived its own reward, with nothing over and above that deserved? You don’t get rewards for the things you ought to be doing in the first place.
    I’m not so sure. I’m inclined not to praise people who are minimally moral: moral in the (Nozickian) libertarian sense of limiting one’s pursuit of self-interest only at harming others. But I am inclined to praise those who take opportunities to benefit others; and I don’t see such beneficent behavior as supererogatory. Instead, it is in the range of morally good behavior to which no one can claim a right. It is a better and more difficult way to live than its minimally moral counterpart.

    May 31, 2008 — 9:11
  • Andrew Moon

    Michael,
    I had thought about that, but I’m inclined to agree with Robbin Collins (he argues this in his chapter on eastern religions in Reason for the Hope Within, edited by Michael Murray) that these complex Karma systems would themselves need a designer. Think about it. We have an extremely complex system that takes people at their death and places them into another body that will give them the exact and precise amount of punishment or reward for their previous lives. Now compare the following propositions:
    1) It’s just by brute chance that people’s souls are transported in this way.
    2) There’s some brute law of nature that is responsible for people’s souls being transported this way.
    3) There’s a contingent law of nature that is responsible for people’s souls being transported this way.
    I have a strong intuition that such a law of nature would have to be contingent and dependent on something else. And it seems to me that only some grand, powerful designer concerned about justice could be responsible for the existence of such a law (i.e., something very much like God).

    May 31, 2008 — 12:21
  • Andrew Moon

    Matthew,
    I’ll grant that one option is that wrongs be ultimately righted not via punishment, but by redress being made to victims. But doesn’t the basic idea work? If God does not exist, then there will be no redress. People who worked hard all their lives, suffered horrible ill-treatment from predators, and gave of themselves to help others (only to be hurt by the people they helped) will never get redress on a naturalistic framework. So if you agree that there’s an intuition behind this point, we have some intuitive support for (1) (or something very close to (1)).
    Raymond Aldred,
    Hmm, your counterexample would show that (1) is false. But just as someone could say that they find no positive reason to think that (1) is true, the defender of (1) could just state that they find no positive reason to agree with your counterexample. Supposing there is no moral accountability, they might claim, it’s not clear that the true objective moral judgments we make in the actual world would exist. There would be something missing from such moral judgments without the accountability to go along with it.
    In other words, somebody that’s already inclined to feel an intuitive pull to tie together objective moral truths with moral accountability just won’t feel the intuitive pull behind your counterexample.

    May 31, 2008 — 12:26
  • Skeptical

    One surely does not want to appeal to brute intuition.
    Here is an argument, though I am not much persuaded by it. Begin by noting that there is some inclination to think that, with respect to other sorts of obligation, there is some obligation-accountability tie. Some are tempted to think, for example, that with respect to legal obligation, for there to be a legal obligation to x there must be some plausible way by which one could be held accountable for one’s not x-ing. (This explains the temptation toward sanction theories of law: no law without legal obligation, no legal obligation without sanction.) So, maybe one could claim that this is a general truth about obligation, and ask why moral obligation would be any different.
    The next move is to make sure that only God can fill the bill — otherwise, we will have folks saying that one might be held accountable by one’s fellow humans for failure to meet obligations. (The prior argument does not show that one must be perfectly held accountable for there to be an obligation, only that it be plausible, or something like that.) Perhaps one could argue here for singleness of source: that there are some moral obligations that are not plausibly community-enforced (say, obligations to go against one’s community norms in certain circumstances), and that for a set of obligations to belong to a single system (e.g. morality, law, etc.) there must be a single source of accountability. If there are, then, some moral obligations that only God could plausibly hold us accountable for, then that would show that morality as a whole depends on being accountable to God.
    Craig is very weak in much of the moral philosophy discussion. He’s a very good philosopher on some stuff, but this just isn’t his strong point, and I wonder why he places himself in debating situations where he does not come off well.

    May 31, 2008 — 13:25
  • Nullasalus

    Andrew,
    Re: Karma and God, I’d agree with your intuition. For me, one problem with questions of moral realism and God is that it seems that a lot of morality is dependent on an ordered nature to begin with. Killing is wrong because of (at least, in large part) the physical ramifications (the experience of pain and suffering, the irreversible nature of death, the sorrow). But what if the death were not only reversible, but easily so, and this fact were known? What if such physical facts also removed the sorrow, even the pain and suffering, and these too were known?
    That to me leads in the direction of two further thoughts. One being that if a creator is necessary for nature to exist, then a creator is necessary for morality to, at least, be actualized and ordered. Another being that if it’s true that ‘a moral life is its own reward’ (and conversely, an immoral life is its own punishment), it seems like we’re set up with a system similar to karma in life already – and the same questions of a being so ordering the situation previously pops up.
    As for Craig, I’d have to see a transcript to really absorb it – but I recall thinking Craig didn’t do bad at all in the debate. Perhaps I was mistaken.

    May 31, 2008 — 16:57
  • Andrew Moon

    Hi Skeptical,
    So the argument would go something like this:
    i) A legal obligation to x requires a way by which one can be accountable for not-xing..
    ii) Moral obligations are relevantly analogous to legal obligations.
    iii) So a moral obligation to y requires a way by which one can be held accountable for not-xing.
    I’m having a little bit of a hard time understanding the modal claims in (i) and (iii). Does it only require the possibility of being held accountable? If so, then an atheist could then agree to (iii). But I believe you’re meaning something stronger (not that you actually endorse this argument). Should the argument have a ‘will’ where there is a ‘can’ in (i) and (iii)?

    May 31, 2008 — 17:11
  • Andrew Moon

    Nullasalus,
    I don’t think he did badly, but I just don’t think his arguments were convincing (even to me, a theist). For example, as Antony pushed, he really didn’t give any reasons to think that duties are grounded in commands.
    Many ethicists think that ultimate moral claims are necessary truths, and it doesn’t matter whether physical matter exists at all. For example, hedonistic utiliitarians will push that pain is bad and pleasure is good, and this proposition is true even in a world where there is no physical matter. It’s necessarily true. (A libertarian might say a similar think about rights and persons.)
    It seems implausible to me that a moral life is its own reward. Plato/Socrates thought this, but Thrasymachus’ challenge still seems plausible. Think of the honest man who is constantly being tortured with no relief. Think of Jews that died in the Holocaust or children that are suffering as victims of child prostitution (and who grow up in this lifestyle and die of AIDS). Furthermore, think of the perpetrators of these actions, those who are enjoying the money and luxury or power from exploiting others. It’s implausible to me to think that they are getting their due reward/punishment on earth. And for those who die suffering, it’s implausible that they are getting their due redress (see my response to Matthew Mullins). This is all so unless there is some moral accountability in the afterlife. (The point about redress might not strictly be about moral accountability, but it’s a closely involved idea.)

    May 31, 2008 — 17:24
  • Drapetomanic

    If God doesn’t exist, then Morality doesn’t exist
    F -> T = T
    F -> F = T
    T -> T = T
    T -> F = F
    Therefore, for the conditional to be false, it must be the case that God doesn’t exist, and that morality does. Therefore, for this conditonal to be objectionable, a proof of the existence of morality must be made.
    Right?

    June 1, 2008 — 2:22
  • Enigman

    2) There’s some brute law of nature that is responsible for people’s souls being transported this way.
    2 seems plausible to me. I too know nothing of Karma, but we’re assuming that souls exist, and are reincarnated, and that there are moral facts, so it seems reasonable that there should be objective goods, for those facts to be about, and that the goodness of a soul should therefore be akin to an objective charge carried by it, and that a potential life would also have some objective charge, a nice one carrying a good charge, since nice things are (ceteris paribus) good. Why should souls of good character not be attracted by brute law towards potential lives (bodies, social positions and such) that are good? Such a system seems to me to have the sort of elegance that natural laws have. The brute law would accompany the brute existence of reincarnating souls, as the law of gravity accomanies the existence of mass-energy…

    June 1, 2008 — 10:17
  • (1) If there are objective moral truths, then there will be some ultimate moral accountability.
    I can’t see any reason to accept (1), but I’m sometimes blind to reasons.
    One odd implication of (1) seems to be that whether or not an action A was morally bad or not (I think the qualification ‘objective’ is just redundant) depends on future facts about whether the agent will be held to account*. That strikes me as highly counterintuitive. It suggests that the oddity of such thoughts is not due to their falsity:
    (2) Perhaps it would be wrong to kick this small puppy for a quarter, but only if I were to assume that there won’t be total annihilation fifteen minutes from now.
    I just don’t see how the annihilation counts as a right-maker, an attenuator, or any such thing that could bear on the rightness of the contemplated course of action.
    I’m not sure if this can be worked into an objection, but imagine a world containing God and only God. God contemplates what to create and it seems that (a) there are moral truths about what God may and may not do in this creative project and (b) God cannot be held to account. At the very least, if God were to perpetuate evils, there would be nothing that could see to it that God got what God deserved.
    (* This is assuming that living the moral life is not its own reward in which case it seems (1) might be true but we’d need nothing supernatural to make it true.)

    June 1, 2008 — 12:57
  • nacisse

    i think there is reason to think (1) is right. becuase If there are objective moral truths and one of such truths is that people should be treated fairly or treated as they deserve (which seems like one of the highest moral truths). then wouldn’t it be incoherent to suppose that people aren’t held accountable for their acts ? wouldn’t that show that we lived in an absurd universe where there are objective moral truths (people should get what the deserve) yet this truth is impossible ( people never get what they deserve because of the way reality is) that would seem like an irrational reality.
    something like if it were a moral truth that people should not be tortured needlessly yet everyone ended up being tortured needlessly because of the way the universe was ‘set up’. that would seem absurd to me.

    June 1, 2008 — 14:20
  • (1) If there are objective moral truths, then there will be some ultimate moral accountability.
    Andrew,
    I don’t see how (1) is related to Craig’s argument. Maybe you don’t intend it to be related. Craig argues this way,
    1. There are objective values, objective duties and moral accountability iff. God exists (this could be weakened to ‘only if’).
    2. God does not exist.
    3. :. There are no objective moral values, objective moral duties or moral accountablity.
    Naturalists are committed to (2). The bulk of Craig’s argument is for (1). He thereby commits the naturalists to (3). As far as I can see, the only interesting relation between moral duties and accountability Craig defends is either (4) or (5) (or maybe some combination of them),
    4. Moral duties are pointless contraints on our pursuit of self-interest, if there is no accountability for what we do.
    5. There is no reason that might motivate agents to act morally, if there is no accountability for what we do.
    In fact, Craig weakens (4)/(5) a bit. He considers the social contract (SC) argument that acting morally might well be in our self-interest. But he presents the standard reply to (SC) arguments, that compliance with our agreement is not in general in our self-interest. In those cases–cases where we are in a sufficiently powerful position–moral constraints on the pursuit of self-interest lose their force.
    On Craig’s behalf, it is difficult to see how morality would be its own reward (whatever that means, finally) if it is a human artifact or socially constructed. And it is difficult to see how morality would not be a human artifact (probably having some evolutionary basis), if God does not exist. In any event, it’s being a human artifact is the best candidate for the origin of morality, if God does not exist. Other candidates seem unlikely. I doubt we discover that morality is based in some discoverable telos for human beings (Aristotle-wise) or in human reason (Kant-wise).

    June 1, 2008 — 16:14
  • Mike,
    You wrote:
    The only interesting relation between moral duties and accountability Craig defends is either (4) or (5) (or maybe some combination of them),
    4. Moral duties are pointless constraints on our pursuit of self-interest, if there is no accountability for what we do.
    5. There is no reason that might motivate agents to act morally, if there is no accountability for what we do.

    I can’t think of any good reason to accept (4) or (5). But, if we were to accept (5), I can’t imagine that the grounds for so doing wouldn’t establish a kind of egoism that wouldn’t show that human agents are incapable of being moved by the moral motive regardless of whether theism is true or not. Similarly, I can’t imagine what an argument for (4) would look like unless it were an argument that showed that moral reasons are really purely instrumental reasons if ever they are reasons at all regardless of whether theism is true or not.
    Does anyone know of any plausible arguments for thinking that (4) or (5) are true that would not be reasons for thinking (4) or (5) would be true if theism were true? I take it that Craig is trying to show that there’s something particularly troubling about naturalism. I don’t see that at all.
    I’m having a real hard time with this passage:
    And it is difficult to see how morality would not be a human artifact (probably having some evolutionary basis), if God does not exist. In any event, it’s being a human artifact is the best candidate for the origin of morality, if God does not exist. Other candidates seem unlikely. I doubt we discover that morality is based in some discoverable telos for human beings (Aristotle-wise) or in human reason (Kant-wise).
    I’d ask if you thought that morality as a divine artifact is more promising than the idea of morality as a human artifact. (Myself, I’d think that if nothing available to the naturalist could ground morality, there’s nothing that could ground morality) Maybe I’m overly impressed by the Euthyphro, but I take it what’s crucial for Craig in this context is that there’s some clear advantage the theist has over the naturalist. I can’t see what it is.

    June 1, 2008 — 18:58
  • Does anyone know of any plausible arguments for thinking that (4) or (5) are true that would not be reasons for thinking (4) or (5) would be true if theism were true?
    If theism is false, then the point of morality is not in some divine plan. What then is the point? The only credible answers point to the benefits to moral agents–i.e., improvements to the welfare of agents–forthcoming from collective moral action. Social contract theorists give such reasons. But social contractors do not agree to the same moral rules that theists would. The penalty of failing to comply with the rules is that others will not cooperate with you. That is, you lose the benefits of cooperative behavior.
    Theistic reasons for acting morally do not in general point to the mundane benefits of doing so. So they would not be moved by the atheistic argument for compliance above. The point of moral behavior is in some divine plan which we might have no clear notion of. Theistic penalties for failing to act morally do not include exclusion from the cooperative venture for mutual advantage. The penalties are otherworldly. The reason for them are unknown to me.
    I’d ask if you thought that morality as a divine artifact is more promising than the idea of morality as a human artifact
    If theism is true, then morality is not an artifact at all. So I’m not following the question.

    June 1, 2008 — 19:30
  • Luke Gelinas

    Mike,
    Why does a credible answer need to reference the benefits of collective action? Couldn’t another credible route be a perfectionist response that locates the point of morality in the benefits that accrue to the agent from developing her own nature? It doesn’t seem like you need to refer to collective benefits to make perfectionism work; and perfectionism seems pointful enough. At least, we can understand why someone would be motivated to be moral on this view: just because doing so contributes to the perfection of her nature, which is a good for the agent.
    Moreover, I’m not sure you need to refer to well-being at all. Doesn’t that assume something like egoism, or at least some form of motivational externalism? Maybe I’m not clear what we’re saying when we talk about morality having a “point.” But if it’s motivational–if morality’s having a point means something like its having the ability to motivate people to do the right thing–it’s controversial to assume that the only thing that motivates people is considerations of well-being.
    At least, well-being for the agent. Maybe a moral act has to benefit somebody or other to have a point. But even that seems controversial. DCTers might reject it–I might have obligations to God (worship, etc.), but we might feel uncomfortable saying my fulfilling these obligations benefit God. Some environmental ethicists might deny it too, since it’s not clear that all objects of moral concern–ecosystems, etc–have interests, and thus not clear that the concept of well being applies to them at all.

    June 1, 2008 — 23:18
  • Andrew Moon

    Mike,
    You’re right that Craig doesn’t explicitly defend (1) (or at least I don’t think he does). The reason I thought (1) was relevant was because the point of the debate was to show that God is necessary for morality in some interesting way. The point that ‘moral accountability exists only if God exists’ is interesting only insofar as moral accountability is necessarily tied up with objective morality. That’s why I thought that (1) is important for Craig’s argument.
    Everybody,
    Btw, I remember reading an article by George Mavrodes where he argues that morality would be very queer if there were no God to make people morally accountable for their actions in the afterlife. I remember reading it in the Pojman anthology. (No, I’m not confusing this with Mackie’s queerness argument.)

    June 2, 2008 — 0:00
  • Luke,
    I presented the social contract argument as offering the most plausible explanation of the origin of morality on the assumption that God does not exist. I still think that. I didn’t say that there weren’t alternative views about the nature and point of morality (I did mention Aristotle and Kant, for instance) but I suggested that it would be surprising (to me anyway) if either one of these is right. I guess I’m not persuaded by more contemporary perfectionist theories that moral virtue is in general closely tied to functioning well.
    Andrew, you write,
    The point that ‘moral accountability exists only if God exists’ is interesting only insofar as moral accountability is necessarily tied up with objective morality
    The relation that Craig seems to offer is that accountability is necessary to provide the motivation to act morally (and part of the point) where moral reasons alone won’t. This goes back at least as far as Hobbes, who insists on a political solution to the moral problem of the non-compliance with moral rules.

    June 2, 2008 — 7:56
  • John Alexander

    It seems that at points in this discussion there is an underlying argument that requires the existence of a just God to melt out what is rightly deserved. It seems that some want to include in the idea that ‘accountability’ and ‘dessert’ that there must be a final just ‘balancing of the books’ in order for these concepts to make sense. This view seems inherent in Andrew’s original proposition, “1) If there are objective moral truths, then there will be some ultimate moral accountability,” where he asked if there is any reason(s) to believe that 1 is true. This is reinforced in Andrew’s last comment (June 2, 12:00am) where he said, “The point that ‘moral accountability exists only if God exists’ is interesting only insofar as moral accountability is necessarily tied up with objective morality.” It may well be true that ’moral accountability is necessarily tied up with objective morality,’ however it may also be true that there is no final balancing of the books. I suspect (as others have indicated) that a just God would be necessary for such a balancing to take place. So, it seems that the answer to the issue originally posed by Andrew turns on whether one believes in such a God. If one does, then one has a reason to think that 1 is true.
    One of the problems that I have had with this discussion is that there has been no candidate, clearly identified as an objective moral truth, presented that we can put to the test. Consider the following candidate: A) Justice requires that people get what they deserve. If A is true, then it would follow that someone would be treated unjustly by not getting what she deserved. But, if she does not get what she deserves does this count against the truth of A? Clearly it does not. We have to believe that A is true in order to say that she was being treated unjustly. The truth of A is independent of whether or not we actually get what we deserve. If this is true, then 1 (as stated without reference to there being a just God) is false. It may very well be the case that there are objective moral truths but that there is not final accounting. There being a requirement of a final accounting would have to be established as an objective moral truth and I do not see how that can be achieved without referencing the existence of a just God.

    June 2, 2008 — 9:53
  • John Alexander

    I would like to ask Mike Almeida to clarify what he meant when he said, “I’m not so sure. I’m inclined not to praise people who are minimally moral: moral in the (Nozickian) libertarian sense of limiting one’s pursuit of self-interest only at harming others. But I am inclined to praise those who take opportunities to benefit others; and I don’t see such beneficent behavior as supererogatory. Instead, it is in the range of morally good behavior to which no one can claim a right. It is a better and more difficult way to live than its minimally moral counterpart.” I am not clear on what you mean when you say, “and I don’t see such beneficent behavior as supererogatory. Instead, it is in the range of morally good behavior to which no one can claim a right.”
    Here is my problem, if person A does not have a right to x, but it is beneficent of me to give x to A, then how is this giving x to A not a supererogatory act on my part? Clearly we should give people what they have a right to and we can be negatively sanctioned (blamed) if we do not. But it is not clear to me that we can be blamed for not giving something they do not have a right to claim from me. We can be praised for giving something to another they do not have a right to, but what is the basis for blaming if we do not? It seems to me that there is a middle ground between Nozick’s position and supererogatory actions that needs to be brought out or we should all be acting as Mother Theresa did and move into the slums of the world and help the sick and needy. Yet, I do not think we are morally obligated to do so. This type of beneficent action seems supererogatory. We can be praised and honored if we do act this way, but not blamed if we do not. (Of course, I am simply restating Urmson’s position from his “Saints and Heroes.”) Anyway, can you clarify your position?

    June 2, 2008 — 10:19
  • Hi John,
    You wrote,
    Here is my problem, if person A does not have a right to x, but it is beneficent of me to give x to A, then how is this giving x to A not a supererogatory act on my part?
    Here’s one way. Some, but not all, believe that we are obligated to peform some beneficent actions, some of the time. That is consistent with also believing that there is no particular person/institution/organization to whom you owe your beneficence. So no matter who you benefit, he cannot claim a right to your beneficence. Nonetheless, you’re obligated to benefit someone or other. In acting beneficently, you are discharging a duty, no matter who you benefit. To take one example, I might be obligated to give something to some charity or other, but not obligated to any particular charity. There’s a whole range of ways to interpret this imperfect duty. Some claim that we needn’t perform any acts of beneficence, others claim that we should perform many. I’m inclined to praise those who interpret this duty generously. But it is still seen as a duty, not as supererogatory.

    June 2, 2008 — 11:02
  • Luke Gelinas

    (1) If there are objective moral truths, then there will be some ultimate moral accountability.
    It might be worth noting that there’s a related proposition in the neighborhood that might seem more plausible:
    (1*) Moral motivation requires a belief in ultimate moral accountability–that happiness/well-being be apportioned to virtue or good behavior.
    It’s also worth noting that there’s a prominent strain in the tradition (e.g., Kant and Sidgwick) that holds both (1*) and something like the following to be true:
    (2) The correct apportionment of happiness to virtue requires the existence of an omniscient and just God who does the apportioning.
    Of course, this is an argument from moral motivation–not moral truths–to the existence of God. But the implicit premise seems true: it does seem that at least some (and probably many) people are morally motivated. (2) strikes me as pretty solid. I’m not sure about (1*). Sartre, for example, makes a pretty good case against it.

    June 2, 2008 — 11:04
  • Andrew Moon

    Mike and Luke,
    Ah, I see that (1) probably isn’t what’s so much at issue as something close to (1*). Or how about
    1**) Doing the morally right thing is always what is rational for S to do only if S believes that there is some ultimate moral accountability.
    Sometimes, the right thing will cause us a lot of suffering. Corrie Ten Boom suffered a lot for hiding Jews during World War II, and there was a strong likelihood that she would not survive the concentration camps. But her belief in a provident God (supposing the belief was rational) made it rational for her to do the morally right thing.
    Generally, it seems that without God (or ultimate moral accountability), there are cases where doing the wrong thing will benefit you overall more. Or it seems that for some individual S, S’s preferences and desires will be better satisfied if he does the wrong thing. But this is only the case if God does not exist (or if there is no ultimate moral accountability). So I think that (1**) is true, though I’m not sure where that gets us.

    June 2, 2008 — 12:17
  • Luke Gelinas

    Andrew,
    I guess I’m not sure we can’t have cases where people are motivated to act morally even though they recognize that they might suffer horribly for it, and where they hold no belief to the effect that the universe is, in the end, a just place.
    Suppose we have someone who thinks the universe is absurd, that happiness is hardly ever apportioned to virtue, but that nonetheless she is obligated to behave a certain way. Suppose this person performs some heroic act even though she knows it will bring her great suffering. Is this person rational? Commitment to (1**) seems to imply not. But I’m not sure. Why assume that one acts rationally only if one believes that one will not suffer unjustly as a result of one’s act?
    In general, if morality and rationality are tightly linked, then one might act rationally simply by virtue of acting morally–even if one denies that acting morally always benefits (or at least fails to harm) the agent, or that happiness and virtue are coextensive.

    June 2, 2008 — 12:50
  • nacisse

    John Alexander: “A) Justice requires that people get what they deserve. If A is true, then it would follow that someone would be treated unjustly by not getting what she deserved. But, if she does not get what she deserves does this count against the truth of A? Clearly it does not.”
    but if we live in a world where justice is impossible (where no one gets what they deserve)then the idea of there being an objective moral truth that we should be just seems absurd. because something being morally right means that I should pursue it, but I can’t pursue something that is impossible – that would seem absurd. so if there is no accountability my options would be living an absurd – but moral life – or living amorally…

    June 2, 2008 — 13:48
  • if morality and rationality are tightly linked, then one might act rationally simply by virtue of acting morally–even if one denies that acting morally always benefits (or at least fails to harm) the agent, or that happiness and virtue are coextensive.
    I think Gauthier observes early in MBA (rightly, in my view) that moral action and rational action are not the same thing. Otherwise, he thinks, the answer to the question “why be moral?” would be easy. But it’s not easy. I take that question seriously too (I realize not everyone does) and believe it deserves an answer better than the Kantian one on which the criterion of rational action is none other than the criterion of moral action. Gauthier has in mind rational action in the (economic) sense of unconstrained utility maximization. This would be badly misunderstood as selfish, shortsighted or otherwise ill-considered behavior. Gauthier construes the question as asking why a person who is an unconstrained utility maximizer would take seriously the demand (i.e., morality’s demand) to constrain this pursuit in various ways. Gauthier’s answer is that unconstrained maximizers, choosing not at the level of action but at the level of principles (or dispositions to act) would choose a disposition to constrained maximization. They would see that such a disposition pays better than the disposition to unconstrained maximization.
    Forgetting about whether Gauthier/Hobbes is right. I think they put this question in its toughest form. In other words, if those of us who would like to have an answer to “why be moral?” actually have a convincing answer to the unconstrained maximizer, then we’re in great shape. This maximizer–unconcerned as he is with the interests of others and unmoved as he is by sympathy or care or compassion or any other moral emotion–is the toughest to convince.

    June 2, 2008 — 14:04
  • Luke Gelinas

    Mike,
    The way this is set up, it seems as though (maximizing) consequentialists get a free pass on the ‘why be moral?’ question (which is, I agree, a question to take seriously). Just b/c, on consequentialism, and just by unconstrainedly maximizing, the rational unconstrained maximizer necessarily acts morally.
    I think I must not be following, b/c this can’t be right. One of the most prominent objections against maximizing consequentialism is that it demands too much from agents. I.e., it seems as though quite often the unconstrained maximizer will find himself in situations where his maximizing principles of rationality require him to act in ways that demand a great deal of self-sacrifice. But in these cases it shouldn’t be difficult to convince him to be moral: On his own premises, rationality demands it.

    June 2, 2008 — 16:17
  • Argh! What I said misled you. I said that unconstrained maximizers are utility maximizers. That’s true, but they maximize utility for themselves, not overall. Had it been overall utility that they maximized, then of course you’d be right.

    June 2, 2008 — 17:02
  • Luke Gelinas

    Right. I figured that must be it.

    June 2, 2008 — 18:38
  • Andrew Moon

    Luke and John,
    Welp, Mike said most of what I was thinking about saying in response to you guys (which I don’t mind at all, since he probably said it better than I would’ve).
    I guess that if I were an atheist, and I could get away with doing a wrong act (so that nobody would find out), and that wrong act caused me pleasure, and if I would not have enough of a conscience to feel bad about it, and there would be no negative effect for my desires/preferences in life (suppose I know that I’m going to die the next day of a disease), then I just don’t think that there’s any rational reason for me to not do it. You could say, “you have a moral reason! the fact that it’s wrong is a reason not to do it!” But supposing that I didn’t care about moral reasons? You would say, “it doesn’t matter! those moral reasons are still there and valid!”
    And then I would go ahead and do the wrong act, experience pleasure from doing it, I would die the next day, and nothing I antecedently desired is lost. That would just seem to me to be a better alternative than the one in which I don’t receive that pleasure. Repeating that there are those moral reasons just wouldn’t move me, and I can’t see a reason why I, as an atheist, would be motivated to follow the moral way in such a scenario. This seems to me to support my (1**).
    (If you want more meat to my example, let’s say I had powerful binoculars that allowed me to be a Peeping Tom that wouldn’t get caught. What rational reason is there for me not to perform this wrong action given what I stipulated above?)

    June 2, 2008 — 22:54
  • Luke Gelinas

    I wonder, though, what the fact that there might be people like this–people who don’t care about moral reasons in the absence of ultimate accountability–shows about (1**). I guess the question is whether they’re rational not to care about moral reasons, or conversely, whether someone who denies ultimate accountability but recognizes the force of moral reasons, and acts on them, is irrational.
    (1**) implies that these latter folk are irrational. But, without a whole lot more argument, I don’t see why we should think so. I don’t see how the existence of people who in fact don’t care about morality (and where their lack of belief in ultimate accountability is one of the causes of this indifference) shows that (1**) is true. We need more than counterexamples like the one you offer; we need an argument that rationality and morality don’t coincide. That’s a hefty task. The denier of (1**) can, I think, just insist that the person in your example isn’t rational, and here intuitions will diverge, depending on what you think about the deeper issue.
    I find some of the stuff that Warren Quinn and the later Foot say in support of the convergence between rationality and morality fairly compelling. (Their strategy, BTW, seems to me one way to do it without going Kantian.) I’m not sure I’m convinced; but I don’t think the project is hopeless, either.

    June 3, 2008 — 9:34
  • John Alexander

    Mike:
    You said: “Here’s one way. Some, but not all, believe that we are obligated to perform some beneficent actions, some of the time. That is consistent with also believing that there is no particular person/institution/organization to whom you owe your beneficence. So no matter who you benefit, he cannot claim a right to your beneficence.”
    Thanks for your clarification. I do not think we disagree here. Question: can the disadvantaged make a general claim to a right for beneficent treatment? There needs to be something that generates an obligation. Belief is not sufficient to generate such an obligation. The fact that there is suffering may generate a general obligation to eliminate or alleviate suffering wherever I can (all else being equal) without generating a duty to help any specific person. If I do nothing then I can be held accountable for failing to fulfill my general obligation to aid someone.
    Andrew Moon:
    You said: “1**) Doing the morally right thing is always what is rational for S to do only if S believes that there is some ultimate moral accountability.”
    Why can’t the following be true? Doing the morally right thing is always what is rational for S to do only if S believes that there is some moral accountability. It may turn out to be the case that a person will be held accountable by those whose lives she affects so, on balance, it is rational to do the morally right thing because it may affect my sense of self as well as my reputation and status in the community. Because I value my sense of self and my reputation and status in the community I do the morally right thing (assuming that I am a member of a morally praiseworthy community.)
    Narcisse:
    You said: “but if we live in a world where justice is impossible (where no one gets what they deserve)then the idea of there being an objective moral truth that we should be just seems absurd. because something being morally right means that I should pursue it, but I can’t pursue something that is impossible – that would seem absurd. so if there is no accountability my options would be living an absurd – but moral life – or living amorally…”
    But in our world it is possible for someone to get what they deserve without everyone getting what they deserve so pursuing justice is not impossible even if it is not likely that everyone will get what they deserve. Also in our world it is the case that some are held accountable even if some are not so it seems plausible that my life is not absurd even if I am pursuing a moral life. I may do so for prudential reasons, but they are still reason to act morally.
    Andrew
    You said: “I guess that if I were an atheist, and I could get away with doing a wrong act (so that nobody would find out), and that wrong act caused me pleasure, and if I would not have enough of a conscience to feel bad about it, and there would be no negative effect for my desires/preferences in life (suppose I know that I’m going to die the next day of a disease), then I just don’t think that there’s any rational reason for me to not do it. You could say, “you have a moral reason! the fact that it’s wrong is a reason not to do it!” But supposing that I didn’t care about moral reasons? You would say, “it doesn’t matter! those moral reasons are still there and valid!’ ”
    I suppose you are correct that doing a bad action that gives me pleasure and no one will find out that I did it that I would have no rational reason not to do the bad action if I did not care. But the point is that I am not in this situation. I do care, especially about my sense of self. I choose to try to live a life where I am doing the right thing more often then not. Are you suggesting that caring may be a necessary condition for doing the right thing?
    Here is another possibility. The fact that there may not be any ultimate accountability if that accountability requires a just God does not mean that there is no afterlife or ultimate accountability. The ultimate accountability may well be how I value myself as a member of a ‘community of souls.’ I hold myself ultimately accountable both to myself and my community. Continued membership in that community may rest on how well I can account for how I have lived my life (lives).

    June 3, 2008 — 12:23
  • nacisse

    John,
    I think morality requires something like (1) If X is wrong no non-moral considerations can make Xing right to do – Xing would be inescapably wrong.
    so if a) justice is never done – pursuing justice would be absurd
    or if b) justice is occasionally done – pursuing justice would be a calculated choice; you might want to pursue it or you might not. you may opt for something more certain or pleasurable. you wouldn’t have an inescapable reason to pursue it though.
    only if c) justice is certain would you have an inescapable reason to pursue it.
    so if it is true that morality requires (1) then i think (c) follows. on (a) the moral life would be absurd and on (b) not absurd, but still not reason enough to account for morality – i dont think…

    June 4, 2008 — 1:59