Remember the big apologetics war Peter and I waged, where he fired the first salvo in the wrong direction, and called me Justin to boot? George is still waging it, though Peter’s end of the argument has gotten stale rather quickly — and not just because he’s been sitting on George’s reply for over a week. His argument amounts to a false dichotomy — either morality is objective (and therefore God exists as the “law-giver”), or it is subjective (and therefore anyone can choose to do anything they want if they think it’s good). And this dichotomy depends on some semantics about those two words.
If you know me well enough, you know I have little patience for philosophy as I find it to be self-important fluffery, using logic to prove things without any evidence, misused by theists to the point where my impatience grows into disdain. Philosophy has largely been superceded by empirical scientific discovery in every area of studying reality. However, it still has a place — and a valuable one, one I cannot begrudge its practitioners. Meta-ethics, for instance, can’t rightly be refined by a scientific process, even while we discover how the brain shapes our personal ethics through the same scientific process. Without philosophers defining objective moral frameworks around which we can better serve humanity, our moral codes would never evolve — it is therefore the engine for evolution for our societal morality.
Daniel Fincke of Camels With Hammers was dragged into the debate between Peter, George and I at George’s behest, and his first salvo wasn’t against Peter — it was against George and my use of the words “objective” and “subjective”. Evidently, philosophy has a whole lexicon for a varied shade of positions about morality, and “subjective” morality actually has two definitions — one that is in line with Peter’s definition, and another that involves a law-giver (e.g., The Supreme Court, for instance) that can make things good or bad by fiat. Neither of these fit with the definition I was using — merely, that there is no external, inviolate, unchanging objective law. I was using “subjective” as the opposite of “objective”. On the spectrum, “objective” covers the extreme leftmost corner, and “subjective” covers everything else. As it turns out, this definition is far too broad, regardless of what we’re arguing.
I posted the following on Daniel’s blog:
Not to resurrect a dead horse to beat on it some more, but I do feel the need to clarify, and I was under many time constraints over the past week while travelling, so I really couldn’t properly attempt to defend my layman’s understanding of philosophy. This is not an attempt at arguing with you, for the record, only of explaining my position in such a way that we are not talking at cross purposes as much as we seem to have recently.
I would agree that, given the definitions of terms you’ve given in this post, I am also a naturalist and a contextualist. However, I limit my understanding of “objective, natural values” to the context of human beings, insofar as morals do not exist outside the scope of humanity. Morals are a framework by which humans decide what action benefits themselves and their society most; and I strongly suspect we’ve created them because humans are natural classifiers — we will not simply accept any aspect of our humanity without first having “punched, stamped, filed, briefed, debriefed or numbered” it. We’ve evolved as social animals, who work better together than apart as a species, and therefore require rules that we enculturate in our offspring in order to keep individuals from damaging or otherwise breaking the cohesiveness of the societal unit. Our empathy as human beings pretty much ensures that we have to take others’ feelings into consideration; the fact that empathy can be removed by lobotomy indicates to me that morals are entirely brain-dependent.
I make the caveat about it applying only to humans because I steadfastly deny that the existence of morality (such as it is, since it does not exist manifestly without humans) proves anything about a divine creator or “law-giver”, which is the general tactic of the presuppositional apologist. If my declaration that morals are subjective is anything, it is an inartful declaration that morals do not exist separately from humans, and are therefore contingent on them. It is also a declaration that one needs to make a specific objective moral frame the guideline for building one’s system of morals, and that societies’ laws are a zeitgeist-dependent approximation of them.
At least in a functioning democracy. Some laws simply exist to ensure the ruling class remains the ruling class. Some laws exist as a sword of Damocles hanging over each citizen’s head, intended to serve the government in damning anyone at their discretion — much in the same way that every person on the planet is a sinner if the standard is the Bible, given how it was written to damn every person for at least one thing, and if not for anything endemic to humanity, then through “original sin”.
Jason’s emotivist-like discussion of “disliking” pedophilia—rather than condemning it explicitly on objective grounds—has not yet convinced me that his views rule out subjectivist relativist dimensions.
Also, I believe the “dislike” construction [referring to the blockquoted objection above] was paralleling one of Peter’s assertions that atheists have no reason to believe pedophilia is “wrong” without a law-giver. If this isn’t the case, then obviously, emotivist language was not the best construction, and I am not the most polished at arguing philosophical or meta-ethical questions. I was using the layman’s understanding of “objective” — “unchanging, uniform under all circumstances” — and “subjective” as the opposite. I expressly deny the false dichotomy Peter presents, that morals either were given to you by God or they differ from person to person and therefore give cover to a pedophile. The fact that you have so many words for so many positions on a spectrum I didn’t even know was fleshed out by philosophers shows me that philosophy has a place in discussing man-made concepts like morality. I am a very practical soul: a naturalist (there is no supernatural) and monist (there is only one kind of “stuff”, matter), and a determinist (every molecule does exactly what it’s supposed to, and doesn’t break any laws of nature to do something uncaused), and barring any advances in the field of quantum physics, I strongly believe free will is an illusion — one I’m willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy.
Because I strongly believe there is an objective truth to the universe, and science is the best way to find it, I generally find questions of subjectivity (by which in this case I mean anything to do with humans and their understanding of one another and of ethics or other man-made constructions) to be side-bars to the greater quest of discovering this universe. I prefer science to philosophy, but only because I find philosophical arguments to generally be an unending ouroboros of painful discussion about semantics. I don’t mean “semantical quibbling”, I mean “semantics”. As in, “meanings of words.” The “quibbling” part comes in when — and only when — one tries to make their position clear despite misusing a word, and the bulk of argument following involves the misuse of the word rather than the position they attempted to make clear.
And if anything in this diatribe uses incorrect words, I welcome you to correct them, but not to assume that my use of them means my position is anything but what I’ve laid out. If you’re unsure, please do ask.
On reflection, I also need to point out that my exact quote about “disliking” pedophilia:
Atheists dislike the idea of pedophilia because children are vulnerable, and it is in human nature to protect vulnerable members of our species. They are not sexually mature enough to make an informed consenting decision, and therefore they are not “consenting adults”, and therefore do not count as someone you can “have sex with and enjoy it because sex is fun”.
Note that the second clause of the first sentence, through to the end of the quote, is an objective framework: children are vulnerable, and humans will protect them because otherwise our species would die off. It is also a recognition that sexual predation on children would tangibly harm them because they are not informed or sexually mature, and therefore would be psychologically damaged by the act. Protecting children is an objective framework that is arguably the easiest one to get everyone to agree with.
Why then Peter can use this as a rhetorical club and get away with it, while I get accused of not sufficiently providing objective reasons why pedophilia is bad, is beyond me. And you wonder why I dislike semantics. No matter which way I try to argue, people on both sides of the argument will beat me up using semantics as their club.
I’ll change my lexicon. I have no problems doing so. I just seriously dislike it when people take me out of my provided context to argue word-choices, when the context I provided refines the definition of the words I’m using. I mean, hell, when people (including Daniel) tell me I’m taking stuff out of context, misunderstanding stuff because the surrounding text is missing, I correct it — even when the omission is not my own fault. So I’m using the wrong words… big deal. My meaning should be manifestly clear, and if it isn’t, a quick question about them never killed anyone.