Discussion of Objective Morality: Cross Examined on Objective Morality

So, I’m planning on writing on a post by Richard Carrier discussing objective morality, and as a kind of preamble to the post I’d like to examine this post by Cross Examined’s Bob Seidensticker attempting to show that objective morality doesn’t exist. Maybe. Well, at least it is aimed at showing that a specific argument for objective morality is wrong, which makes it worth looking at at a bit.

Seidensticker starts with this claim in response to Tim Keller’s argument that we think that the extermination of the Jews was in fact utterly immoral, no matter what the Nazis or anyone else thought of it:

There’s a difference between a widely believed or strongly felt moral opinion and objective morality. Don’t make the remarkable claim of objective morality (Keller’s “moral standards exist, outside of us”) without evidence.

So, parsing this, it looks like he’s arguing that the claim that there is an objective morality is a remarkable claim. But on what grounds does he assert that? Keller’s argument is that for the most part when we think of morality we think of these clear cases, and think that morality implies that these are, in fact, morally true regardless of how anyone thinks of it. This implies that we think that moral standards exist and apply independently of what people think they are. How is it that the predominant characterization of morality, based on our moral intuitions, is the remarkable claim? Especially considering that those moral intuitions are, in fact, pretty much the only evidence we have to say that anything like morality exists and is worth talking about. Sure, we could be wrong in our moral intuitions, but you need more than the idea that we could be wrong to call the objective morality claim remarkable but the non-objective morality claim not.

Moreover, this reply is utterly pointless, because the question is: Does Seidensticker believe that the extermination of the Nazis was immoral regardless of how they, or anyone else, thought of it, or does he reject that? If he accepts it, then he accepts objective morality. If he rejects it, then he has to accept some consequences, not the least of which is that he would have a very hard time justifying being able to argue against those who held that it was okay. Either he goes full-on relativistic and so can’t argue on any basis except for that person’s own beliefs, or he divides up his relativism but then has a hard time drawing the line of relativism and saying that relativism only applies this far and no further. And none of that would allow him to declare certain propositions objectively moral and claim that others aren’t, because if he does that then he accepts that there are objectively true moral propositions as per those who support objective morality, and is just quibbling over what those moral propositions are.

Which leads in to his reply to J. Warner Wallace. Wallace argues that there are exceptions to rules like “Don’t kill people” and “Don’t lie”, but that this doesn’t prove that objective morality is false. If we alter the rules to be “Don’t kill people just for fun” and “Don’t like just for fun”, then like the Holocaust example we can see that everyone agrees that these are, in fact, just objectively true, no matter what anyone else things about it. Seidensticker replies:

So we shouldn’t kill or lie just for fun. I confess that I’m unimpressed. Do we now have a useful moral roadmap where we didn’t before? Does this rule illuminate issues that frustrate society like abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, and capital punishment so that the correct path is now clear to all?

Nope. We’re no wiser than we were before. And note that the Nazis didn’t kill Jews just for fun, so this rule does nothing to help Keller’s example.

The point of this exercise is only to spit out yet another example that we can all agree to. Keller pointed out that exterminating Jews was bad, and Wallace points out that killing or lying without justification is bad. I’m sure we all agree with these claims, but this isn’t news. Nothing has been illuminated.

Well, except that, as stated above, if Seidensticker agrees that these are, in fact, moral truths independent of us, then he has conceded that those who think that morality is objective are, in fact, correct. It doesn’t matter that these specific moral principles won’t necessarily help us solve all of those other related questions, because they weren’t really meant to. Obviously, if there are obvious answers to those moral questions, we’ll then discover equally “unimpressive” objective moral principles that answer those questions. Or we’ll find a more general objective principle that has as its consequence all of those. At any rate, that’s all irrelevant. If Seidensticker agrees that that this is, in fact, always morally wrong — or “bad” — then that’s an objective moral principle that is independent of what we believe is moral. And that’s all these arguments are trying to establish.

Seidensticker tries to argue for a more plausible view of morality than objective morality:

The problem, of course, is the remarkable claim of moral truth grounded outside humanity—“moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not” as William Lane Craig defines it. Why would you pick this explanation? A far more plausible explanation is morality as a combination of

a fixed part (moral programming that we all pretty much share since we’re the same species) and
a variable part (social mores).

This explains morality completely without an appeal to the supernatural.

Question: what makes those things “moral” in any way? If he wants to appeal to our moral intuitions about morality — ie what we think is moral — then he has to accept that we think that there are some things that are moral regardless of our species or social mores. Out own intuitions, then, don’t make his account any more plausible. He can lean on that “supernatural” part but a) that would only work for naturalists and b) there are a number of philosophers who have perfectly naturalistic ideas of objective morality. So why does he think his is more plausible when his account might not be any kind of morality whatsoever?

Seidensticker then tries to address Wallace’s defense of moral disagreement, the challenge to objective morality that says that because people do not and have not ever agreed on what is moral, then that must mean that morality is not objective (or, at least, strongly implies it). Wallace first starts with the argument that on what basis do “moral reformers” have to argue for moral reform if not by appealing to the idea that there is an objective morality and that what people think is morally right is actually morally wrong? To tie it back to Seidensticker’s “plausible explanation” above, they are not appealing to the fixed part since as we are all the same species we’d already have that, and not to the variable part because the social mores are, in fact, saying that what that reformer says is morally wrong is really morally right. So, under Seidensticker’s explanation, there is no rational or logical basis for them to make that argument.

Seidensticker first wants to claim that it can’t be to objective morality:

Obviously not through an appeal to an objective moral truth. If such a truth were accessible to all of us, how could we be in disagreement? Or does Wallace imagine that objective moral truth is not reliably inaccessible? But if it’s inaccessible, what good is it?

Seidensticker assumes here that if a truth is objective, then it must be self-evidently so, and so everyone must immediately and always see it as being the case. Otherwise, it is inaccessible and useless. But a truth can be accessible and yet not evidently so, and not without reasoning and theorizing and argumentation and experimentation to find out what the truth really is. For example, it is not self-evidently true that the Sun does not rotate around the Earth, and given the fact that we see that the Sun moves and don’t see that the Earth moves it is even the case that the Sun moving around the Earth is intuitively obvious. The same could be said about the rotation of the Earth; it may seem ridiculous to suggest that the Earth rotates since, well, we don’t feel it moving. The entire history of science has been taking this naively intuitive claims and proving that they are, in fact, actually false, with claims that are accessible yet not always intuitively obvious. Is Seidensticker going to claim that all of those truths then were “inaccessible”? Why should our naive intuitions about morality be given more weight than our naive intuitions about reality?

Wallace puzzles over how MLK could’ve caused change, but where’s the difficulty? History tells how it happened. America is not a simple democracy where the majority rules. We have a Bill of Rights that protects the minority against the tyranny of the majority. We have a free press. And we have a long history of (slowly) changing our minds on moral issues.

The majority opinion is that and nothing more. The moral claim “Jim Crow laws are wrong” is grounded only by everyone who agrees with the statement. It’s not objective moral truth.

So, if someone doesn’t agree with that statement, then, they are not, in fact, immoral or violating morality in any way. This means that Seidensticker has no grounds on which to claim that someone who disagrees is, in fact, wrong about what is or isn’t moral. Thus, the Nazis did not do anything morally wrong. Nor would someone who killed someone just for fun. You know, the obvious examples that Seidensticker claimed were too obvious and that everyone accepted, and thus were being used as an invalid bridge to objective morality?

Seidensticker closes off all avenues here if he wants the idea that something is morally wrong to have any weight whatsoever. If it’s all personal, then what someone says about anyone else’s morality is meaningless. And if he retreats to majority opinion to argue for why we should take the claim that Jim Crow laws or the Holocaust are meaningfully morally wrong, then MLK was wrong — and all reformers are wrong — to try to encourage that transition through argument, because the answer to what is morally right is just what the majority says it is.

Seidensticker can’t oppose morality this way without both contradicting his own explanation and making morality meaningless. It’s a double-whammy for him here. And at the end of the day, his objections to morality only end up making morality meaningless and contradicting the idea that there’s any kind of objective truth at all, undercutting science. This means that his arguments walk him into the very problems that philosophers use objective morality to solve, while refusing to concede that he’s willing to live with those problems. His “plausible explanation” isn’t one, and his appeal to history ignores the underlying philosophical arguments and the reasons why the appeals to morality were … appealing in order to support his own personal view, which he then makes meaningless and contradicts while doing so.

My contention is this: if morality is not objective in at least some very interesting senses, it is meaningless. Seidensticker’s take is one of the ones that makes it meaningless.



2 Responses to “Discussion of Objective Morality: Cross Examined on Objective Morality”

  1. Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Science Can Explain Everything” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] these questions with science? The short answer is that he won’t, because he thinks that there are no objective answers to these questions. Which would suggest to me that these fall into those questions that can’t be answered […]

  2. Bad Defenses of Bad Atheist Arguments: “Morality Doesn’t Come From God” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] book that Seidensticker examines focuses on the question of morality. Now, we’ve we’ve already discussed Seidensticker’s view of morality, which is that morality is not objective. As we’ve also seen, I disagree and think that […]

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