The 'objective' morality of P.Z. Myers

In a recent post on his blog P.Z. Myers insists that he makes moral decisions on the basis of an objective morality, and helpfully lays out the principles he uses in making those decisions. He emphatically denies that he rejects torture of toddlers (or anyone else) because he "thinks it is icky." Unfortunately, he does not succeed in demonstrating the feasibility of an "objective humanist morality" (as he describes it), and key supports in the foundation for that morality are missing. What's more, applying his principles consistently and with due regard for differences in people's inclinations and intuitions due to differences in upbringing would result in a truly nightmarish moral 'order', the very nihilism he is so concerned to distance himself and fellow secularists from.

The first factor Myers takes into account when making moral decisions is interest:
Am I even interested in carrying out a particular action? There’s a wide range of possible actions I can take at all times, and all of them have consequences. In this realm of possibilities, most options never come up: I have never been in a situation where I desire or am compelled to torture a toddler, nor can I imagine a likely scenario for such an activity. It is a non-decision; my default choice is to not torture, and the only time the choice comes up is in bizarre abstract questions by not-very-bright philosophers.
It doesn't bode well for the construction of an objective morality that your first criterion is subjective to the core. Whether or not P.Z. Myers would ever be in a position to desire or feel compelled to torture a toddler is an interesting fact about P.Z. Myers, but not about the rightness or wrongness of the act itself. And what if a person's upbringing and choices have resulted in a character for which torturing a toddler is a live option? Military history shows that it clearly has been, for many people throughout history. Would Myers advise them to indulge that desire?

Thankfully, interest is not the only criterion Myers uses to make moral decisions. The second concerns consent:
If I’m contemplating an action, I’d next consider whether all participants agree to engage in the action. If it isn’t consensual, it probably isn’t a good idea. Where does this value come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well. I also find a non-coercive, cooperative culture to better facilitate human flourishing.
I'm starting to think Myers doesn't know the definition of 'objective', because he presents us with another criterion that is fundamentally subjective. It starts out promisingly enough: people should not generally be compelled to do things against their will (Myers acknowledges some legitimate exceptions, such as vaccinating children against their will). A true moral objectivist would justify this principle by appealing to the intrinsic worth of human beings as rational, moral agents (Christian theists would add 'made in the image of God'). But the only justification Myers can appeal to is his own self-interest. He doesn't want things done to him against his will. Again, that's an interesting tidbit about P.Z. Myers, but not about the rightness or wrongness of compelling people to do things against their will. Myers also does not justify the  need for a social contract that requires him to respect others' autonomy. Why not have a social 'contract' where Myers is absolute ruler and everyone else is under compulsion except him (a horrific notion, to be sure)? The tyrants throughout history surely did not like things done to them against their will, but that aversion did not lead them to endorse a social contract respecting others' autonomy. That social contract can only be justified by a worldview which acknowledges the intrinsic, objective worth of human beings, something Myers cannot do because atheistic naturalism has no ontological space for objective worth.

Myers' third criterion concerns harm:
I avoid behaviors that cause harm to others. Again, this is not done because an authority told me to do no harm, but is derived from self-interest and empathy. I do not want to be harmed, so I should not harm others. And because I, like most human beings, have empathy, seeing harm done to others causes me genuine distress.
We encounter the same two problems with respect to this criterion as we did with the others. First of all, there is no inference from 'I do not want to be harmed' to 'I should not harm others'. The first statement is a psychological fact about a person, the second is a normative principle. How does not wanting to be harmed translate into an imperative not to harm others? A mob boss does not want to be harmed but has no scruples about harming others who get in his way. The only way for such a principle to be objectively binding would be for that principle to be built into the nature of things, as much an aspect of the way the world is as the value of the gravitational constant. But again, there is no room in Myers' worldview for moral facts. On his worldview, the facts that he does not wish to be harmed and experiences distress when others are harmed are interesting psychological tidbits but do not provide any objective basis for moral action, and the distress he experiences when others are harmed is not fundamentally different from his aversion to brussels sprouts, if he has such an aversion. The only world in which empathy is morally significant is one in which there is an objective moral order, which makes certain emotional responses either appropriate or inappropriate to a given situation. As it stands, this third criterion is every bit as subjective as the others, and if we do not take for granted Myers' particular set of inclinations and aversions, which resulted in large measure from having grown up in a culture still haunted by Christian values, application of these criteria would result in a very different, and very horrific, social order.

The final criterion is stigma:
This should be the least of my four reasons, but face it, sometimes we are constrained by convention. There are activities we all are interested in doing, that do no harm and may be done with consenting partners, but we keep them private or restrain ourselves to some degree because law or fashion demand it.
How Myers can even pretend this a moral principle is beyond me. Regardless of the extent to which we are in fact motivated by stigma in making decisions, it should be obvious that no legitimate moral decision could be made on the basis of social stigma.

It's a point that must be made over and over again (most recently see my link to William Lane Craig's comment on this): the difficulty secularists have with morality is not (necessarily) their inability to attain moral knowledge or act morally. It is the inescapable fact that, since any secularist worldview worthy of the name has a non-teleological understanding of nature (at bottom the universe is nothing but particles or fields interacting blindly according to mechanistic laws), there is no room in that ontology for the kinds of properties and facts that provide the only possible foundation for moral realism. The most consistent, clear-sighted atheists have always acknowledged this, as well as the nihilistic implications for ethics. For example, Joel Marks recently wrote a NY Times editorial piece called Confessions of an Ex-moralist, in which he recounts his de-conversion, not only from belief in God from belief in objective morality:

This would seem to be the modern, sane view of the matter: We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong that trumps even the commands of God. We have the ability to judge that God is good or bad. Therefore, even if God did not exist, we could fend for ourselves in matters of conscience. Ethics, not divine revelation, is the guide to life. That is indeed the clarion call of the “new atheists.” As the philosopher Louise Antony puts it in the introduction to a recent collection of philosophers’ essays, Philosophers without Gods: Secular Life in a Religious World: “Another charge routinely leveled at atheists is that we have no moral values. The essays in this volume should serve to roundly refute this. Every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong.” 
But I don’t. Not any longer...A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: “Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.” 
But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?
So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism...I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop...I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly... 
...My outlook has therefore become more practical: I desire to influence the world in such a way that my desires have a greater likelihood of being realized.
This is what secularist morality inevitably reduces to: the attempt to influence the world in such a way that a person's desires have a greater likelihood of being realized. Moral statements are reduced to mere rhetorical tools to try to get people to act in ways aligning with our desires. As another secular commentator has admitted:
If you ask on what grounds do I accuse rapists of having done wrong, then the authentic answer is that a world with rape displeases me and this is a tool I can use to get society to impose sanctions against it.
This, of course, is nothing short of moral nihilism. It doesn't matter that many Westerners' desires mostly align with what we consider 'enlightened', like an aversion to rape. The nightmare is that morality has been reduced to a pure will to power, so that moral influence becomes a matter of who is most persuasive to the greatest number of people. That didn't work out so well in Germany in the late 30s. 

It's time for secularists to come clean about the real implications of a godless universe for morality. Of course, prone to wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance as we all are, most will continue to live as if the cosmos had an objective moral order and that rightness and wrongness are properties of actions and states of affairs and are not simply another way to describe our own culturally bounded likes and dislikes. And who knows, maybe some of them will eventually realize that they can't help acting that way because things really are that way...


Jason Pratt said…
Heh. This reminds me I never did get around to writing a Part 2 to "Wolfenism And Its Aspirations! (probably not subject to change)". {g}

Good article, JD.

Jason Pratt said…
Hi Jeff! {wave} {g}

Jeff's a good guy, JD, if you haven't met him before. Very much worth exchanging posts with if you have the time.

Clark Echols said…
I am with you until you say

That didn't work out so well in Germany in the late 30s.

I am guessing that P.Z. Meyers would point out that the Nazi criminals did not use "influence" but violence and threats of violence to impose their will.

I learned something from your piece. Thanks.

Clark Echols
I am beginning to suspect that PZ Myers may actually be the god Dionysius. This is not intended as flattery: he's kind of like one of those Grecan deities in the Star Trek episode, where Spock is forced to kiss a girl. Am working on details.
I don't think we require absolutely "objective" morality in order to live peaceful and productive lives, and neither is the notion of "objective morality" to be confused with decisions to make and enforce certain "laws." Morality seems to start, as most things do, with basic biological, sociological, psychological recognitions. Like admitting that it's better to have some food than be starving with hunger pains; it's better to be healthy than be chronically painfully ill; and it's better to be around people who love you or at least like you (and are willing to share food, talk, etc., with you), than be fleeing for your life from others all the time. Put all those natural direct experiences together and note that the vast majority of folks also would agree. That's the basis for assigning "rights" and "wrongs" according to naturalism, it's the natural agreement many have attained and that we can feel in our stomachs, in our pain receptors, even in our shared desires to be around each other and have someone else to share space and speech with, among other things. Even if what I pointed out only convinces you that naturalism is a "just so" story, that's all that divine command theory can prove about itself also, that it's a "just so" story, but at least both of us can agree on having direct knowledge concerning the natural preferences I outlined. There is no doubt also, that in both the naturalist's and supernaturalist's cosmos, moral atrocities as well as hideous natural diseases and other disasters occur. There is no guarantee in either cosmos that they won't. So really, this whole argument "from morality" is one big moot point.

By 'objective' he could mean epistemically objective, in that there is a set of rules, based partly on psychological factors, that will yield the same answer for everyone. So in that sense it isn't merely subjective anything goes morality, even if it is based on psychological, biological, epistemic considerations.

I'm not defending his particular stance here, just pointing out that there is a charitable interpretation of what he means by 'objective' that his critics online are ignoring.
Jason Pratt said…
Hey BDK! Nice to see you here!

Would you say that this interpretation fits the data of how PZM proceeds, as provided in examples by JD in the article?

Or alternately that JD has significantly underrepresented how PZM proceeds on the topic, such that in context the evidence given by JD is of negligible importance and perhaps even misleading to PZM's actual approach?

Jason hi thanks for the note.

Frankly I don't think PZ has thought it through, and is likely confused. It would take a lot of work to turn PZ's stuff into something workable: I would likely start from scratch if I thought this approach had promise.

By 'charitable' I stretched it to mean 'likely what he didn't even mean to be saying, but we could help him by pointing out this is what he should be saying' because he likely hasn't thought about moral philosophy enough.

Yes, it is a bit of bending over backwards, but PZ gets bashed (rightly) so much, I just thought I'd play devil's advocate.
Jason Pratt said…
Kewl. {g}

Although as you note, that would rather change the argument (and thus also criticism for the argument if any).

I'm not sure it would change his argument, because I just think he isn't clear on the issues. He might even say this is silly hair-splitting and bring out some kind of courtier's reply. :)
shiningwhiffle said…
I don't think the existence of ethics is a problem for secularists/atheists per se.

Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics work without gods if you drop the bizarre argument about the gods existing in perpetual contemplation in Book X -- an argument I can't see really appealing to anybody anymore.

Ethics becomes a problem for atheists only when they subscribe to the kind of extreme materialism or pop-skepticism contemporary atheists tend to be attracted to.
Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.

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