Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Mathematics of Morality, or, Are Morals Like Ice-Cream?

Chocolate Chip Ice CreamImage via Wikipedia

When you like chocolate ice-cream and your friend likes vanilla you probably don't say, "you ought to like chocolate".  You realize it's a matter of subjective taste.

How about morality? Does subjective morality "work"?

It would if it were posited as a mere matter of preference. Some people enjoy killing other people.  Most people don't. Most of us would not answer in response to the person who does, "you like killing people; personally, I am against it".  We also probably wouldn't add, "But, I wouldn't want to impose my personal morality on you".  Imposing our morality on the person is exactly what we would want to do.

Why? Do we do it because, a) we can (i.e., we have the power to do so), b) because there is a social consensus (majority rule -- which could change), or c) because  murder is actually, really wrong and imposing this morality on the would-be murderer is the right thing to do?  But, if it is the "right" thing to do, where does "right" (vs. "wrong") come from? What is its foundation?

When we say that killing the innocent is wrong, we are saying something closer to, or similar to, saying, "two plus two does not equal five".  It's not just a matter of preference or taste or upbringing or personal or mere utilitarian values or evolutionary wiring -- killing the innocent is actually wrong (in a way that could never be true if we are the products of mere darwinian wiring). It's like moral law is just as real as mathematics or physics.  In other words, we are postulating objective morality.

(Digression: this view, if accepted, provides a strong reason for why Jesus had to die on the cross -- the penalty for transgressions, like the mathematics of debt, had to be paid for the equilibrium of justice to be restored.)

There is (or at least appears to be) an "ought" to morality that people assume is actual and real beyond the mere imposition of personal or communal beliefs and values on others. We certainly assume there is.

I see this all the time on this blog. People think there is a right and a wrong way to be treated. If I mistreat them, they don't say, "I don't like it when you do this"; their comment is much closer to, "that was wrong of you -- you ought not to have done that".

I feel the same way. If someone deliberately short-changes me at the check-out, my reaction is not, "I don't like it when you do that", or, "this does not promote social harmony", my reaction is much deeper and visceral -- "I have been sinned against; what you did to me was WRONG".

This is a conundrum for the person who posits an uncreated universe devoid of meaning, purpose, and values, and man a mere unintended player who happened to "show up".

It is of course no problem for theists.

Do the math. Does it add up for you?

Regain your humanity. Rebel against the atheist machine.™
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5 comments:

Pete Fraser said...

This is one of the reasons I feel less and less connected to the Christian idea of God. If we state that morality is meaningless unless measured by God's objective standard, then we should feel the same about taste. We can't pick and choose - either BOTH morality AND taste in ice cream (for example) require an objective standard to have meaning, or neither of them do.

RkBall said...

Not meaningless unless measured by God's standard; only meaningless if God does not exist to provide a sufficient reason for humans to think that looking on life through a moral lens is meaningful. You can be an atheist and be thoroughly moral in your outlook -- the question is -- what is the grounding for you having a moral outlook? Invention of the idea of morality? Darwinian wiring? Both fall short of anything that would result in real, actual right-and-wrong.

RkBall said...

"We can't pick and choose - either BOTH morality AND taste in ice cream (for example) require an objective standard to have meaning, or neither of them do."

Substitute mathematics for morality and re-run the sentence.

RkBall said...

Pete -- You have just given me another reason to rejoice in God -- while he has created reality in such a way that some things are non-negotiably objective, e.g., math, gravity, in other areas he has given us freedom to subjectively like/dislike.

Hræfn said...

The topic of this thread, "Are Morals Like Ice-Cream?", appears to be a mere Gish Gallop past the (unrebutted) point I made when this issue was raised in a previous thread:

Subjective opinions take the full range from the superficial to the profound, without any obvious demarcation line between what could spontaneously arise or emerge from a person and what is a "conundrum". (Your faulty line of thought is very similar to Creationists' invalid microevolution versus macroevolution argument.)

"When we say that killing the innocent is wrong, we are saying something closer to, or similar to, saying, 'two plus two does not equal five'."

WRONG!

See Honor killing and Duel for just two of the many examples of socially-sanctioned killing (often of the innocent).

"It's like moral law is just as real as mathematics or physics. In other words, we are postulating objective morality."

This is a very bad analogy, with zero probative merit. All mathematics and all physics is the same regardless of culture (give or take a few YECs who deny the physics of isotope decay and the like), morality shows a considerable range of cultural variation.

"There is (or at least appears to be) an "ought" to morality that people assume is actual and real beyond the mere imposition of personal or communal beliefs and values on others. We certainly assume there is."

This is simply an argumentum ad populum fallacy -- made even weaker as the "actual and real" morality that they believe in varies according to culture (and often even by subculture).

"I see this all the time on this blog. People think there is a right and a wrong way to be treated. If I mistreat them, they don't say, "I don't like it when you do this"; their comment is much closer to, "that was wrong of you -- you ought not to have done that"."

Most of the "wrong"s you've been getting recently have been for logically-invalid or unsubstantiated-and-ludicrous claims. But in any case, it is unwise to build a philosophical case based upon colloquial speech (people use "believe" both for "accept as factual or highly probable" and "accept as an article of faith" in every day conversation).

"This is a conundrum for the person who posits an uncreated universe devoid of meaning, purpose, and values, and man a mere unintended player who happened to 'show up'."

No Rick, "this is" Rick demonstrating his ignorance of how "the person who posits an uncreated universe devoid of meaning, purpose, and values" actually thinks.

Atheist existentialists have been finding "meaning, purpose, and values" since before Christianity existed. That you don't understand the thought process by which they did so does not make it a "conundrum" to anybody other than yourself.

"... nothing intellectually compelling or challenging.. bald assertions coupled to superstition... woefully pathetic"