Sam Harris not getting an ought from an is

Sam Harris recently made a series of Tweets which, he claimed, showed how to get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Here they are:

  1. Let’s assume that there are no ought’s or should’s in this universe. There is only what *is*—the totality of actual (and possible) facts.
  2. Among the myriad things that exist are conscious minds, susceptible to a vast range of actual (and possible) experiences
  3. Unfortunately, many experiences suck. And they don’t just suck as a matter of cultural convention or personal bias—they really and truly suck. (If you doubt this, place your hand on a hot stove and report back.)
  4. Conscious minds are natural phenomena. Consequently, if we were to learn everything there is to know about physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, etc., we would know everything there is to know about making our corner of the universe suck less.
  5. If we *should* to do anything in this life, we should avoid what really and truly sucks. (If you consider this question-begging, consult your stove, as above.)
  6. Of course, we can be confused or mistaken about experience. Something can suck for a while, only to reveal new experiences which don’t suck at all. On these occasions we say, “At first that sucked, but it was worth it!”
  7. We can also be selfish and shortsighted. Many solutions to our problems are zero-sum (my gain will be your loss). But *better* solutions aren’t. (By what measure of “better”? Fewer things suck.)
  8. So what is morality? What *ought* sentient beings like ourselves do? Understand how the world works (facts), so that we can avoid what sucks (values).

The whole thing boils down to premise 5. He says that we ought avoid things that ‘suck’. By ‘suck’ he basically means things that are painful (as his example of the stove indicates). So premise 5 basically just says: we ought to avoid pain. That is assuming an ought coming from an is: we ought not do things that cause pain (that ‘suck’).

The only thing he says to justify this is “If you consider this question-begging, consult your stove, as above”. But all ‘consulting the stove’ would do is remind us how painful the experience was. It wouldn’t, on its own, show us that we ‘ought’ not do it.

What Harris is relying on is the fact that we don’t want to have the experience of pain that touching the stove provides. The idea is that there is a hypothetical norm of the following form:

If you don’t want to feel pain, you ought not put your hand on the stove.

Harris is relying on the fact that we all don’t like feeling pain, and so the antecedent condition applies universally. But still, it is a hypothetical norm, not an unconditional (or ‘categorical’) norm.

What difference does that make?

Well, it isn’t really an example of getting an ought from an is; at least, not in any morally significant sense anyway. That’s because hypothetical norms are just the best ways of realising your desires. If you desire x, you *ought* to do y, when y is the optimal way of realising x. They can be morally significant things, like if you want to make the world a better place, you ought to give to charity, etc. But they can also be morally neutral: if you want to get your car fixed, you ought to take it to a mechanic; if you want to loose weight, you ought to take more exercise. They can also be immoral: if you want to murder your neighbour, you ought hit him over the head with this rock.

Morality, on the other hand, is usually thought of as being unconditional, or ‘categorical’. Take my last example. Sure, hitting your neighbour is an efficient way of murdering him. But we generally think that we simply ought not murder people at all. Even if I want to, I ought not do it. The ‘is-ought’ issue is about how to derive these sorts of ‘oughts’ from mere ‘is’s.

So the mismatch is that he is asserting a categorical normative statement (“we should avoid what really and truly sucks”), and he is offering only a hypothetical norm as it’s justification (which is that if you don’t want to experience things that suck, you ought not do things that will produce experiences that suck).

Hypothetical norms can’t justify categorical norms though, because the former require you to have a particular desire, whereas categorical norms are independent of what you desire; hypothetical norms only apply to you if you have a certain desire, but categorical norms apply to you regardless of whether you do.

Its a bit like saying ‘Everything is A’, but justifying that with the statement ‘Everything which is B is A’. Even if we agree with the latter, that cannot justify believing the former.


CosmicSceptic and objective morality

0. Introduction

CosmicSceptic is an atheist YouTuber, called Alex, from England. Despite those similarities, we see things a bit differently. He recently made a video, called Morality Can’t be Objective, Even if God Exists. In it, CosmicSceptic (henceforth CS) makes a few pretty sloppy arguments, and I’m going to explain where I think he went wrong here.

  1. The main claim – morality is subjective

At the start of the video, CS explains that he has had something of a change in his view recently. Apparently, he used to think that atheists had to be subjectivists about morality, but that theists could be objectivist about morality. In contrast to that, he now believes that:

“…even they, the religious … can’t provide an objective basis for morality either” (1:17).

So what CS is going to argue is that nobody can provide an ‘objective basis’ for morality; all morality is subjective, whether atheistic or theistic in nature.

1.1 Subjective and Objective

An immediate issue is that CS doesn’t tell us exactly what he means by ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’. It’s not a particularly controversial topic, and this Carneades video does a good job explaining it. Basically:

  • x is objective if and only if (iff) x does not depend on what we think or feel about x.
  • x is subjective iff x does depend on what we think or feel about x.

On the other hand, I think CS sometimes means something slightly different by the term ‘objective’. Sometimes, it sounds like he means the following:

  • x is objective iff it can be shown (or demonstrated, or proven) to be the case

These are two ideas are distinct, because (at least in principle) something can be objective in either sense without being objective in the other.

For example, unproven (or or even unprovable) mathematical formulas are still true or false independently of what anyone thinks about them (although some philosophers disagree, most don’t). So, there can be things that are true independently of what we think, but not demonstrable.

Conversely, something can be demonstrated to be the case, yet not be true independently from what we think about it. For example, we can demonstrate the value of the dollar vs the pound (by pointing to the latest exchange rate), but all monetary value is a product of collective human agreement, and would not exist if minds did not exist.

So being mind-independent and being demonstrable are logically distinct notions, and should not be conflated. Unfortunately, there is a sort of ambiguity present whenever CS says ‘objective’. For instance, when CS makes his central claim, it seems to me to be infected with the above ambiguity. He says (1:45):

“I am now of the view that all morality, even religious morality, is ultimately subjective”.

Is he saying that: all morality depends on our mental states or that: morality cannot be shown to be true? These are quite different. His central claim is not clear. Maybe he has explained this in other videos, but haven’t seen him ever explain this. This will become important towards the end.

Anyway, CS explains that he will outline the following:

  1. How he defines morality
  2. Why he thinks religious morality is subjective.

So let’s take these in turn.

2. Defining morality

CS defines morality as (5:43):

“The intuition that we ought to do that which is good and ought not do that which is bad.”

He puts this as text on the screen so we are sure to note it. There are several big problems with this though.

Firstly, it completely begs the question against the moral realist. Usually, moral realism is the view that moral claims, such as “x is good” or “one ought to do x”, state truths, and these are true independently of what people think or feel about them (i.e. they are objectively true). Yet, CS defines morality explicitly in terms of intuitions, which are mental states. If there were no minds to have intuitions, then there would be no morality according to CS’s definition. That rules out moral truths as being ‘objectively’ true from the outset.

Before he gives his definition, he talks about something that Tracy Harris said on an episode of the Atheist Experience. CS disagrees with Harris because he thinks that when talking about what makes someone moral or not, she left out the idea of having moral intuitions. CS imagines a robot that is programmed to act fairly, but this wouldn’t make the robot moral, according to CS. To be so, the robot needs moral intuitions, says CS.

Perhaps a moral agent requires intuitions of what is right and wrong (although I’m not sure I buy that either), but that definitely doesn’t mean that morality itself should be defined as being an intuition about what is right and wrong. Morality, surely, is what our moral agent has intuitions about; that is what we need to be defining. So I think I can see how CS got to his definition, but he should drop the word ‘intuition’ from it (and indeed he later does).

Secondly, and this is more important, there are clear counterexamples to the central aspect of his proposal. He is basically offering two conditionals, which relate the moral properties of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with the moral duties, or obligations, which are what you ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’ to do. His conditionals are as follows:

  1. If something is good, then we ought to do it
  2. If something is bad, then we ought not to do it

CS seems to think these are mere platitudes. Yet, there are seemingly obvious counterexamples to this.

In general, being obligatory is a stronger requirement than being good; there are things which are morally good to do, but which you are under no obligation to do. For example, friendship is morally good, but it is not morally obligatory to have friends. The concept of what is morally good is larger than what is morally obligatory; it contains what is obligatory, but also contains things that are not obligatory (like friendship).

Similarly, there are things that are morally bad, which are not impermissible. Exactly what the examples of this category are is debatable of course, but gambling or eating meat are examples of things that are plausibly morally bad but not impermissible. In that way, bad contains the impermissible as a proper subset, and also things that are not impermissible.

We can place actions on a moral scale, as follows:

  1. Both good and obligatory (like saving a person who is drowning in front of you)
  2. Good but not obligatory (like friendship)
  3. Neutral (like having toast for breakfast)
  4. Bad but not impermissible (like eating meat, or gambling)
  5. Both bad and impermissible (like murder or rape)

The fact that we have categories 2 and 4 stops CS’s idea, that we ought to do what is good and ought not to do what is bad, from looking plausible.

2.1 Argument

(The causal reader can skip this bit if they like.)

We can even make an argument which shows what is at stake by adopting CS’s idea, as follows. Consider the principle that ought implies can:

  1. If x is obligatory, then x is possible.

This principle seems very intuitive. Yet, if CS’s view were correct, we would have to abandon it. The reason is that there is no ‘good implies can’ principle, and this makes the pair asymmetric. Here is an illustration:

Imagine you have just one $5 note in your pocket, and are faced with two charity collection buckets; one for a dog charity and one for a cat charity. Giving to the dog charity is morally good, and giving to the cat charity is morally good. Giving to both is morally good. Yet, if we ought to do what is good, then we ought to give the $5 bill in both the dog and cat bucket. But it is impossible to do that; the same bill cannot go in each bucket. Tearing the bill in half will result in giving nothing of any value to either, which is bad. So we have something which is good to do (give to both), and is therefore something that we ought to do (by CS’s principle), but which is also something that we cannot do (because we can only give to one and not the other). Thus there is something we ought to do that we cannot do, which clashes with the ought implies can principle. We can avoid this difficulty by recognising that although both are good, neither is obligatory, which is to throw out CS’s principle.

Here is a slightly more formalised version of the argument, for people who like that sort of thing. If you don’t, you can definitely skip this bit. It’s a reductio ad absurdum:

  1. ~(◊(Dog & Cat))                                   (Assumption)
  2. G(Dog) & G(Cat)                                  (Assumption)
  3. O(x) -> ◊(x)                                          (Ought implies can)
  4. G(x) -> O(x)                                          (CS’s principle)
  5. ∴ G(Dog & Cat)                                    (2, distribution)
  6. ∴ O(Dog & Cat)                                    (4, 5, modus ponens)
  7. ∴ ◊(Dog & Cat)                                    (3, 6, modus ponens)
  8. ∴ ◊(Dog & Cat) & ~(◊(Dog & Cat))    (1, 7, conj. intro.)

7 contradicts 1. One has to deny either 3, or 4, or show that some step is invalid. Is it invalid to infer from two things being good that their conjunction is good (premise 5)? Premise 3 is very intuitive, premise 4 is CS’s principle. Given the above reasons for doubting CS’s principle, it seems obvious that we should just avoid it and block the inference to the conclusion.

2.2 Moore

Despite saying that he is a big fan of moral philosophy, frustratingly, CS only mentions one actual moral philosopher, G E Moore. CS says (6:55) emphatically that:

“…the reason that morality can’t be objective is precisely because ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ought’ can’t be defined. I subscribe to G E Moore’s notion that Good is like the colour yellow. It has no synonyms. It can’t be described to someone who has never experienced it. Nonetheless, you know what I mean by yellow, and you know what I mean by good”

So, not everyone holds to this view, that moral notions can’t be defined. If you think that good actions are those that maximise happiness (or wellbeing, or whatever), then you do think you can say something about what ‘good’ means. Also, if you think that good actions are ones that God commands, then you think you can say something about what good means. Moore disagreed with both of these types of approaches to meta-ethics, and argued that no definition could be given. So, when CS says that he subscribes to G E Moore’s notion that “good is like the colour yellow. It has no synonyms,” it seems like he is saying that he is a moral non-naturalist, like Moore.

But it is strange to see CS endorsing Moore, because Moore was a famous moral realist, who thought there were mind-indepenedent truths about morality. For example, in the opening section on Moore’s moral philosophy in the Stanford article, we find the following point:

“Moore’s non-naturalism comprised two main theses. One was the realist thesis that moral and more generally normative judgements … are objectively true or false. The other was the autonomy-of-ethics thesis that moral judgements are sui generis, neither reducible to nor derivable from non-moral, that is, scientific or metaphysical judgements.”

Clearly then, Moore held that moral notions were both objective and indefinable. In contrast, CS says that moral notions can’t be objective because they are indefinable (“the reason that morality can’t be objective is precisely because ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ought’ can’t be defined”). This is really quite different from Moore.

In fact, Moore is at pains to stress that cases of moral disagreement are like cases of mathematical disagreement (which is paradigmatically objective). We do not simply say that each party has their own subjective view of what is at stake in mathematics; rather, we explain it by supposing that (at least) one party is making a mistake somewhere. As Moore famously says about finding someone doing mathematics seemingly incorrectly:

“If we find a gross and palpable error in the calculations, we are not surprised or troubled that the person who made this mistake has reached a different result from ours. We think that he will admit that his result is wrong, if his mistake is pointed out to him. For instance, if a man has to add up 5 + 7 + 9, we should not wonder that he has made the result to be 34, if he started by making 5 + 7 = 25. And so in Ethics, if we find, as we did, that ‘desirable’ is confused with ‘desired’, or that ‘end’ is confused with ‘means’, we need not be disconcerted that those who have committed these mistakes do not agree with us. The only difference is that in Ethics, owing to the intricacy of its subject-matter, it is far more difficult to persuade anyone either that he has made a mistake or that that mistake affects his result” (Moore, Principia Ethica, §87).

Moore clearly thinks that ethical disputes are as objective as mathematical disputes, and only look different (i.e. look potentially subjective) because ethics is harder than mathematics.

Thus, CS has only a passing connection to Moore’s philosophy here. If this was the first time you had encountered Moore’s moral philosophy, you might come away thinking that his view is similar to CS’s, when they are extremely different

Confusingly, CS seems to change his own tune. Firstly, he starts off saying that moral terms can’t be defined (and cites Moore), but later on he seems to be advocating a pragmatic strategy, which is that by simply not defining them, isn’t taking a stand on moral philosophy at all. He says (7:45):

“The moment we attempt to define good, as in to give it a synonym, we necessarily have to presume a particular moral philosophy. I might define ‘good’ as ‘what God commands’, or as ‘what procures wellbeing’. But to do so I would automatically be agreeing with a certain philosophy. And this is why I haven’t defined ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘ought’ in my definition.”

So there are two different reasons given for why CS doesn’t define moral terms:

  • “…the reason that morality can’t be objective is precisely because ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ought’ can’t be defined”
  • “…to [define moral terms] I would automatically be agreeing with a certain philosophy. And this is why I haven’t defined ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘ought’ in my definition.”

Moore’s claim was that moral terms are indefinable. He has arguments for that claim (such as the open question argument, and the naturalistic fallacy). That is itself a type of moral philosophy, called non-naturalism. Advocating the position that moral terms are indefinable is already to take a stand on moral philosophy, and to disagree with people who define moral terms in relation to God’s commands or maximising wellbeing. Moore didn’t just refrain from giving a definition because otherwise he would “automatically be agreeing with a certain philosophy”. He wasn’t avoiding advocating a moral philosophy. He had a very distinct, and influential, moral philosophy of his own.

CS seems to think in this section that by not defining the terms he is not taking a stand deciding between moral philosophies. That’s not only false (because he would be endorsing a version of non-naturalism, which is itself a species of realism), but it is also different from what he said above. Either CS doesn’t define moral terms because he thinks, like Moore, that they can’t be defined; or he merely holds off from defining them in order to make a statement that other people can get on board with. These are not the same, but CS doesn’t seem to recognise that.

We are left feeling that his grasp of what Moore’s moral philosophy is, is shaky at best.

3. Religious morality – Craig’s argument

CS examines some quotations from William Lane Craig. CS sets up the challenge as follows (10:55):

“So why does Dr Craig feel that atheism can’t provide a basis for objective morality?”

The quote from Craig goes as follows:

“Well, because if morality is just based in feelings, and relationships with other people, and the way we were raised by our parents and society, then it’s all relative – someone who has different feelings or was raised in a different society might have a vastly different set of values and moral duties – and therefore it’s not objective; its purely subjective”

CS comes back immediately after playing the clip by saying:

“Ok, so that’s crucial. Note the use of the word “therefore”. Dr Craig says that atheistic morality can vary upon a person’s upbringing, their geographical and social background, their environment, which ‘therefore’ shows that it is subjective, because it wouldn’t be variable if it were objective.”

I take it that this is CS summarising what he takes to be Craig’s argument here. We can put it like this:

  1. Atheistic morality can vary due to geography, etc.
  2. Therefore, atheistic morality is subjective.

CS thinks that this argument can be turned against religious morality though:

“It seems by that logic that if I can show that religious morality can vary in the same way, it too is therefore subjective. And of course a moment’s reflection allows us to realise that religious views too, obviously, vary in exactly the same way. A person’s religious view is more often than not determined by their social and geographical background, just as atheistic morality is.”

CS is making the following argument:

  1. Religious morality can vary due to geography, etc
  2. Therefore, religious morality is subjective.

Let’s try to be clear about what is going on. I’m going to make two distinct points about this. Firstly, he seems to be strawmanning Craig’s assertion. Secondly, CS is using the term ‘atheistic morality’, but he doesn’t explain what he takes that phrase to mean, and this causes problems with how he takes the argument even if we think he didn’t strawman Craig.

3.1 Treating Craig Fairly?

I think that there is reason to seriously doubt that CS’s idea of Craig’s argument is what Craig was really saying. CS seems to ignore entirely the first part of Craig’s sentence. Consider it again:

“… if morality is just based in feelings, and relationships with other people, and the way we were raised by our parents and society, then it’s all relative.”

It is a conditional, and the first bit of the antecedent is “morality is just based in feelings”. The conclusion, following on from the word ‘therefore’ that CS told us was crucial, was “it’s not objective – its purely subjective”. Let’s recall that the standard definition of subjective just means that it is dependent on our thoughts and feelings. On one reading then, what is going on here is that Craig is really just spelling out that:

If “morality is just based in feelings” then “it’s not objective; its purely subjective”

That is a simple definitional consequence. That’s just what it means to be subjective.

The words that follow the ‘therefore’ (i.e. “it’s not objective; its purely subjective”) isn’t primarily supported by the idea that morality varies from place to place. That is merely an illustration of the wider antecedent assumption, which is that “morality is just based in feelings”. This seems to be the most straightforward way to hear what Craig is saying here.

Looking at it the way CS does though, Craig is making a really poor argument. He might be doing so, but given that there is another easy way of reading him, why think that he is? Why not consider the better argument? Either CS didn’t ever realise that Craig could be read like that, or he simply misunderstands Craig (due to not being clear on what ‘objective’ means), or he is strawmanning Craig. I don’t know which one it is.

3.2. Atheistic morality

CS uses the term ‘atheistic morality’ when summarising Craig’s argument. But it is not clear what this means. Obviously, it indicates that God isn’t required as part of the theory, which makes divine command theory definitely not a candidate. But we don’t know anything else about it. And it matters for what CS wants to say in a minute. So just to be clear, let’s distinguish two possible ‘atheistic moralities’:

  • Moral subjectivism – there are moral truths, but they depend on human minds for their existence
  • Moorean non-naturalism – there are moral truths, and they are objective non-natural truths.

CS gives us no reason to think that one of these is what ‘atheistic morality’ means rather than the other. Both seem like options available to an atheist (Moore’s theory requires no reference to a God). So, again, we have an ambiguity over what CS is talking about. And this matters here, because it will infect his argument.

So, to recap, CS characterised Craig’s argument as saying that because ‘atheistic morality’ varies from place to place, that means it is subjective. CS then said that he can turn this logic on religious morality, because that varies from place to place too. At this point, CS says that there is an obvious rebuttal to this turning back of Craig’s argument (12:10):

“Ok, I can already hear the sounds of religious objection. Of course religious views vary, but that’s not because my religion is only subjectively correct. It still has an objectively true morality. It’s just that other people have gotten it wrong, and follow a false morality, because they feel that their religion is objectively true when it really isn’t. My morality is still objective even if other people have gotten it wrong.”

So the response CS imagines hearing is someone basically saying that variation in opinions does not mean that the topic is subjective. This response is exactly what Moore said about moral disagreement. For a moral realist, whether religious or not, the fact that people have different views about morality is just like when they have different views about mathematics. It doesn’t show that it is all subjective; it shows that at least one person is incorrect.

CS thinks that there are two problems with this as a response:

“Firstly, the exact same could be said of atheistic claims to objective morality. Of course atheistic claims of morality vary by social and geographical backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean it’s not objective, just that other people have gotten it wrong. It’s the same thing”

But now the failure to distinguish between the two potential versions of ‘atheistic morality’ starts to make trouble.

If ‘atheistic morality’ is a version of subjectivism, then this rebuttal is not available to the atheist. On subjectivism, if you think X is wrong, and I think X is right, we cannot explain that as a case of one of us being mistaken. Each of us is just reporting our own individual opinion, like saying “I like X” and “I do not like X”. That doesn’t count as a case of disagreement, and cannot be explained by one of us making a mistake. It is deeply disanalogous to mathematics.

On the other hand, if ‘atheistic morality’ is a version of realism, like Moore’s theory, then the rebuttal is available. However, CS states very explicitly that he is a subjectivist about morality, so this response is not available to him.

So he can only take this route by denying the central claim in his video.

CS has a second reason:

“Secondly and more crucially, the only reason that anybody could possibly choose one religious morality as more ethically viable than another is because they feel that it provides a better framework for moral truth. How else could a person possibly prove to themselves or to others that one religion has a superior ethical code to another? How else can a Christian possibly believe that the ethical code of Christianity is superior to that of Islam? If you want to compare the ethics of two religions you need some moral basis on which to judge them. That moral basis obviously can’t be one of the religions and so the only way you can decide which religion is morally superior is through a subjective analysis of which you feel is better. It’s ultimately a subjective decision based on your, not your religion’s, moral intuition.”

So, let’s recap a bit. The argument CS takes himself to be responding to is his version of Craig’s argument, which was that because atheistic moral opinions vary, that means it is subjective. He replied that the same could be said of religious views; they vary as well, so they should be subjective on that logic. He then painted a possible reply from religious people, who say that the difference of opinion doesn’t imply subjectivism. This is his second reply to that move. He is saying that if you were to decide between two religious moral systems, that would be “through a subjective analysis of which you feel is better”.

Now, what CS says there is true, in a sense. But, it is true for all decision making. Decision making is something that you do in your mind; it is inherently subjective. Ultimately, you base your decisions on things that you believe to be true, and as such they depend on these beliefs. So when I’m doing a bit of mathematics, I have to ultimately decide whether I believe I have got the answer right. I could look at the text book, but even there I have to believe that I understand it properly. I could ask you if I have got it right, but I have to ultimately believe whether I trust you, or whether I understand what you are saying, etc. There is no possible way to decide anything that isn’t “through a subjective analysis of which you feel is better”, in the sense that it doesn’t depend on beliefs at some stage. It’s not clear to me what an ‘objective analysis’ even means. It sounds like saying an ‘objective belief’ or an ‘objective desire’.

But does that mean that everything is subjective? I think the answer is clearly no. All we need to do is distinguish between the belief and the content of the belief. It’s up to me whether to believe the mathematical proof in front of me, but that doesn’t make the proof itself only subjectively true. In the same way, it is up to me whether I believe in a version of moral realism, say divine command theory, but that fact doesn’t make divine command theory a subjectivist theory as a result.

The ‘big argument’ CS has here is just that all morality, including ‘religious morality’, has to be subjective because the only way to decide whether to believe in any moral system is through a decision process which is subjective in nature. This is a terrible argument.

Just in case you thought I was straw manning CS, here he is making pretty much exactly this point:

“The only thing that seems to distinguish religious morality from atheistic morality …  is that the religious believer feels like their morality is objective whereas the atheist recognises the subjectivity lying at the heart of ethical decision making.”

But this isn’t what distinguishes religious morality from atheistic morality. It is true that there is a subjective element at the heart of decision making (whether ethical or not), but this fact doesn’t make what is being decided about subjective.

If I am deciding which action to take, if I am trying to work out which is the right thing to do, my decision will necessarily have a subjective element to it. It happens in my mind. It’s informed by my beliefs. But that doesn’t mean that if I pick option A over option B, that there is no objective truth about whether A is the morally better option. In the same way, if I pick between two religions, I have to make my own mind up about which one I want to go for, but that doesn’t stop the claims of those religions being objectively true (or false). CS seems to think that this is what makes objectivist theories impossible, and he is quite wrong about that.

And it’s not like religious philosophers think that there is no subjective element to moral decision making. Everyone has to ultimately decide for themselves when they make a moral decision if their choice is the morally right one or not. That much subjectivity is present in everyone. Realists just hold that there is a mind-independent fact about whether your choice was the morally correct one.

It might be that what is going on here is that CS has the other version of ‘objective’ in his head when he is making these arguments. Maybe he is saying that you can’t demonstrate, like with a logical proof, that “one religious morality [i]s more ethically viable than another”, and that because of this all religious systems are ‘subjective’.

5. “I’ve got more…”

CS runs a little thought experiment, according to which we grant that God exists:

“Let’s say that somehow we were able to objectively demonstrate that some God, say the God of Christianity exists. We know this for a fact. You might say that if this is the case, religious morality is objective. Because if God is the author of everything, then it is he who determines what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – objectively. Clearly, if God exists, and has objectively defined certain things as good and bad, we can objectively determine how we ought to behave. Morality is objective. Right?”

Here I think we can see the creep of defining ‘objective’ as being ‘demonstrated’, rather than being ‘mind-independent’. There seems to be other uses of the word in this passage which make little sense even if read like that. Consider: “it is he who determines what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – objectively”. What does it mean to ‘determine something objectively’? I can assess something according to some mind-independent standard, like when I check my proof in the textbook, but even then I must make a subjective decision at the end, because I will still need to decide whether I believe that I am reading the text book correctly. All ‘determination’ requires some element of subjectivity, even in the most objective sounding situation of consulting a text book. So what is CS thinking of when he says this?

God is also said to have “objectively defined” morality. But what is the difference between objectively defining something and subjectively defining something? Did God mind-independently define morality? Did he define morality in a way we can demonstrate to others? What is going on here?

The best I can make out is that ‘objectively defining’ something means to define it in such a way that after you have defined it, it becomes true ‘objectively’ (i.e. mind-independently) after that. It is dubious whether there can be anything that counts as an ‘objective definition’, if that is what he means.

Anyway, he goes on:

“Here is the single question that completely changed the way that I view religious morality: why ought we do that which is good? I want you to really think about this, because it’s crucial. Why ought we do that which is good? Let’s say that ‘good’ really was defined by God. We’ve said that we’ve proven beyond a shadow of doubt that the God of Christianity really does exist, and really did write the 10 commandments, let’s say. We can therefore ‘objectively’ say that murder, adultery, bearing false witness, etc are bad ‘objectively’. That’s not enough. You still need to demonstrate, objectively, that because something is good you ought to do it, and because something is bad, we ought not do it. Now it seems stupidly obvious and instinctive that we ought to do what’s good – of course we ought to do what’s good. But can you prove it?”

Well, given my comments in sections 2 and 2.1, I don’t think you ought to do what is good. I think that if you ought to do something, then it is good. But there can be things that are good (like friendship) that you are under no moral obligation to do. CS thinks it is “stupidly obvious” that we ought to do what is good, but I think the general principle is false, because of the counterexamples.

But the confusions keep coming in this passage. Consider: “the God of Christianity really does exist, and really did write the 10 commandments, let’s say. We can therefore ‘objectively’ say that murder, adultery, bearing false witness, etc are bad ‘objectively’.” Firstly, try and tune out the meaningless repetition of the word ‘objectively’, which has no stable content at all. The ten commandments are not proclamations about certain actions being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are commands. God says ‘Thou shalt not…’ If anything, it is God trying to impose an obligation to his people, not assigning a moral value for them. So why does CS think that this would be enough to ‘objectively’ know that adultery, etc, is bad rather than that we should not do it? It is unclear.

Yet that is what he thinks, because he goes on to say that even if we (somehow) accepted that by saying “thou shalt not commit adultery” God had established that it was bad to commit adultery, we would still be faced with the problem of why we ‘ought not’ commit adultery.

Once again CS imagines a response from ‘the religious’:

“The religious might respond that of course we can prove that we ought to do that which is good, because God commands us to do that which is good. God defines good, and God commands us to do that which is good, and so morality is objective.”

CS says there are two problems with this. He says:

“Firstly, you’ve just pushed the issue back. I can still ask why I ought to do what God commands. And any answer you give me can be questioned in the same way.”

But the problem with this whole set up is that we granted a premise that makes no sense, and now we are being told that we cannot grant another one.

Let’s clean up the example, so that it fits with what CS wants it to say. Imagine that God said: “Giving to charity is good”. The question we can ask at this stage is: how does God saying that make it the case that giving to charity is good?

CS wants us to imagine being in a situation where God’s commandments are enough to establish moral values existing (even that his ‘objective definitions’ can make them exist), yet not enough to establish moral obligations from existing. But why not? If we had an answer to how his saying that giving to charity is good makes it good, why wouldn’t we also have an answer to why his saying that you ought to give to charity makes it the case that you really ought to do it? In each case we have God saying something, and the mystery is how him simply saying something makes it the case. There is no special mystery here about obligations which is different to moral values.

There is a legitimate question to be asked, which is ‘why ought I do what God commands?’ But that is really not different from the question: ‘why ought I value as morally good that which God says is morally good?’ Those are both interesting questions, but CS thinks one is problematic and the other isn’t. Or that if you had solved one, you would still have to solve the other. But any solution to one would be a solution to the other. If God’s saying something actually made it the case, then that would work for values or for obligations. Or, if there is some extra difficulty here, CS provides no reason for thinking so.

What CS is fumbling around for is the idea that moral principles, like values or obligations, seem to be what they are independently of what anyone says or thinks about them. God commanding this or that might reveal what he wants, or what the consequences are for doing certain things, but it doesn’t seem like it can be enough to actually make it the case that certain things really are good, or obligatory in the moral sense. But what he is getting at is the intuition that is the main motivation for realism about morality, which is the opposite to what he says he wants to defend in this video.

Anyway, we are at the end of the video now, so I’ll wrap up.

6. Conclusion.

There are various confusions in this video. The idea of ‘objective’ is thrown around, but there seems to be no stable meaning to it. There is a principle about what morality is, which ties moral values to obligations in a way that has obvious counterexamples, but CS seems to be unaware of them. There is a poor characterisation of Craig, which leads to a confusing discussion about ‘atheistic morality’ which suffers from not having a clear idea about whether it is supposed to be objective or subjective. It’s also unclear how that section contributes to showing that religious morality is subjective, as CS ends up arguing against the claim that Craig’s argument can be turned back on him. The idea that all morality is subjective because all decision making involves a subjective element is guilty of conflating belief with the content of belief. At the end, CS seems to think there is an issue for obligations that is not there for values, but he doesn’t explain why this is the case.