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.

18 thoughts on “CosmicSceptic and objective morality”

  1. This is a really great thorough response to this. I wonder what the best way to get CS’s attention to this would be.


  2. I could picture you face-palming while you watched that video. He is spreading so much misinformation, and I bet people are swallowing it up. Anyways, some thoughts…

    1. I don’t think morality and good are synonyms. Is there a slip between defining morality and defining good?

    2. I think some bad things can be obligatory (assuming moral realism). In the trolley dilemma, both scenarios are bad (since someone dies either way), but you are obligated to do one of the two options; the right (obligatory) thing to do is to choose the lesser of two evils (bads).

    3. Any word can have a synonym. We can create synonyms by mere stipulation. That’s not to say that we can’t sometimes wrongfully think some words are synonyms. Someone might think that ‘good’ is synonymous wish ‘maximizes pleasure over pain,’ but later find out that he’s mistaken based on how he uses those words. I can stipulate that ‘schgood’ is synonymous with ‘good.’ More charitably, maybe he’s saying there are no synonyms for ‘good’ in the English language.
    I favor the view that ‘good’ is a thin predicate, which is why it can’t be synonymous with the thicker, more descriptive terms. I like R.M. Hare’s translation argument.

    4. I haven’t read Moore directly, but it’s hard to read any book in metaethics without seeing Moore mentioned. I take it that Moore was saying that moral terms can’t be defined by non-moral terms. David Brink points out, “Moore does think that moral terms are synonymous with other moral terms. For instance, he thinks that the term ‘good’ is synonymous with ‘ought to exist for its own sake’ and ‘has intrinsic value’ … ; see Moore 1903: viii, 146-7; 1912: 42.”

    5. It seems like a lot of people use the word “define” to mean something else, like determine. So, I think he unfortunately has two uses of “define”: 1) the semantic kind from the Moore example, and 2) the determining (i.e. deciding) kind, as in God determines what is good. As far as the semantic kind, I don’t think there isn’t a single Christian philosopher writing in metaethics that thinks there is some definitional relation between God and moral terms. Not since Adams (1979) did anyone think this. Adams was inspired by Donnellan, Kripke and Putnam’s work in philosophy of language such that he later endorsed a necessary a posteriori identity between God and excellence. And none of them think God determines the good either, for on DCT the good is metaphysically identical to God. Maybe he’s thinking about obligations rather than values. That would make more sense, since DCTists think that God’s commands constitute our obligations, and God would determine what to command.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello – okay I’m on the part 3.0 between CS and WLC

    Let me just clear up that I use [objective-relative] to refer to things like the rules of Soccer. They are agreed upon and independent from any one mind, but they may change over time as the institution changes. Also, the sweetness of sugar is constant fact relative to the existence of the human tongue (which may undergo adaptation or evolution in regards to tasting sugar as sweet), the sweetness does rely on a brain to occur, but it does not involve the will, intent or effort of any one subjectivity to bring about ‘sweetness’.

    And [objective-universal] to refer to things like the physics (I am no physicist), which are standards that exist in all corners of (accessible) reality and are utterly independent from the existence or non-existence of humanity. Sugar is not sweet if there are no tongues in existence that can taste it, so it is not an objective-universal thing.

    3.1 Pedagogy
    As all atheistic morality and all the moralities of the world’s religions share these features in common – they are taught: teacher to student, parent to child, priest to congregation, book to reader, we can say that all moralities involve pedgagoy (modes of instruction/learning) as opposed to arriving fully-formed in the individual such as the ability to taste sugar as sweet (sweetness is not the effect of a pedagogy). All moral pedagogies are social – that is they involve either direct contact or contact with cultural artefacts (books) in order to be known.

    Your coverage of this point does not resolve the tension in WLC’s assertion that moralities that are based (practically, not theoretically) in “relationships with other people, and the way we were raised by our parents and society, then it’s all relative.” Because you cannot account for your knowledge of WLC’s positions apart from being the result of pedagogy (in this case, a social form of learning between WLC and yourself).

    If moralities based in feelings and/or social systems of education are subjective by definition – how do religious moralities proove that they are not simply the result of social instruction followed by subjective feeling (the feeling being the thing that separates those who accept the instruction as true or not-true)? (or how do we know religious moralities aren’t objective-relative, like the rules of soccer: learned and cherished, but not universal)?

    You address this question tangentially here with respects to the learning of mathmatical proofs. I’m not really into math – so let’s say that one apple plus one apple will always be two apples and that this is a universal fact. It is a fact that exists even if no conscious agent exists. Okay. That means that it is three things 1) uniform, 2) demonstrable, 3) all demonstrations will lead the observer to the uniform fact.

    However your explanation uses these words “in a version of moral realism” – which suggests that there are a variety of models that an observer can choose from. This makes it different to a mathmatical proof because it is not demonstrable and does not lead observers to a single uniform fact, instead it confronts and provokes them to make a selection from a version of morality. This is a very different prospect.

    How is selecting a version of moral realism not a subjective activity?

    It seems your answer at this point is ‘the agent may just have chosen the one version or religion that is objective-universal’ – but how do we then eliminate the chance that the agent has chosen the wrong version or religion?

    5.0 (You skipped the number four)
    At this point you distinguish between things being mind independent and demonstrable (you therefore shouldn’t use the example of mathmatical proofs, unless they are similarly not demonstrable, because this muddies how your argument is read). Is the end of your discussion really that you hold to something that is both mind-independent and non-demonstrable? Because that just seems like the effect of a pedagogy to me and provides little in the way of certainty that one’s position describes the true and the universal.

    Anyway at this point – in the discussion of deities that may themselves be universal – the distinction of what is subjective, objective and even free for that God to choose, or to command or not really breaks down as the thing in question is not a finite entity, whether that entity is a mind or not-a-mind.

    Why did I read this whole thing? 😦 It doesn’t end up with any kind of compelling point of view – only that there are particular grounds on which someone might find CS inadequate in his use of language. But I am left utterly unconvinced that you have access to an objective-universal morality because you appear to insist that it is non-demonstrable.


    1. Thanks for your comments.

      I’m not sure about your definitions of ‘objective-relative’ and ‘objective-universal’. The taste of sugar counts as ‘objective-relative’? The objective-subjective distinction basically follows the ‘primary-secondary’ properties distinction (, and that puts taste squarely in the subjective corner. I’m curious what counts as subjective to you, if the taste of sugar is a type of objective?

      On your pedagogy section, you say:

      “As all atheistic morality and all the moralities of the world’s religions share these features in common – they are taught: teacher to student, parent to child, priest to congregation, book to reader, we can say that all moralities involve pedgagoy”

      Ok. But let’s insert something like mathematics in there. That is also taught, teacher to student, parent to child, etc. Does that fact mean that mathematics itself is subjective? I don’t think so. We can teach each other objective facts. This planet is the third one from the sun. That’s objective, but someone taught it to me. So I think your point that moral systems are taught doesn’t on its own establish that they are subjective rather than objective. More is needed to establish that.

      “how do religious moralities proove that they are not simply the result of social instruction followed by subjective feeling”

      I think this is moving the goal-posts a bit. CS’s argument was that moral systems have to be subjective. I was pointing out that his argument didn’t establish that. You are asking how defenders of those systems prove that they are objective. That’s a different question. I don’t have to be able to prove that they are objective to show that CS’s argument didn’t establish that they are subjective.

      In your section 3.2 you say:

      “How is selecting a version of moral realism not a subjective activity?”

      The selection process is subjective, but that doesn’t mean that what is selected is subjective. You can choose whether 2+2 = 4 or whether 2+2 = 5. The choice is yours, and however you decide to do it is up to you. But that doesn’t mean that you would be anything other than objectively wrong if you picked the latter. The act of choice is subjective, but that doesn’t mean that what is selected is subjective. Same with morality.

      “but how do we then eliminate the chance that the agent has chosen the wrong version or religion?”

      Good question. But even if that is hard to answer (even if it is impossible to answer) doesn’t mean that what is being selected isn’t objective. What goes on in a black hole? Maybe there is no way to know. But that doesn’t mean that nothing goes on, or that whatever I decide goes on is what goes on. Again, this sort of changes the focus onto a different topic rather than pose an objection as such.

      “Is the end of your discussion really that you hold to something that is both mind-independent and non-demonstrable?”

      That isn’t really the point of my post as such. But yes, I think there are things that are mind-independent and non-demonstrable. Kurt Godel was a famous logician who showed that mathematics has unprovable theorems in; formulas or equations which are true but not provably true. So in that sense, there is a very clear case that part of mathematics is indemonstrable. Yet, mathematics is still objective (if anything is).

      “It doesn’t end up with any kind of compelling point of view – only that there are particular grounds on which someone might find CS inadequate in his use of language. But I am left utterly unconvinced that you have access to an objective-universal morality because you appear to insist that it is non-demonstrable.”

      Well, all I tried to do was show that his argument didn’t work. I don’t think I said I would argue that I have “access to an objective-universal morality”. So, I’m sorry you were disappointed, but I think you expected more than I can offer.

      I do think that morality is objective, but I don’t think there is a watertight argument that I can offer for that conclusion. I think pretty strongly that all CS was doing in his video was saying that because we pick moral systems using our own decision making processes, that makes morality subjective, and that when he makes this argument he is wrong. I think you also have a similar way of looking at these things, and in that respect I disagree with you as well. Hopefully this reply is helpful to you in that you can understand what I am saying anyway, even if you don’t agree with it. Thanks.


  4. “Both good and obligatory (like saving a person who is drowning in front of you)”

    Is it always morally obligatory, though? I think it would be judged on a case-by-case basis, and while I feel like you’d agree, I’m not sure because I don’t really know you, aside from reading some of your posts on this blog and your conversations with Matt Dillahunty.

    But anyway, what I’m thinking here is that it wouldn’t be morally obligatory if saving someone else’s life would put your own life at risk, would it? Imagine the following scenario. Jake is an overweight man who can swim, but he hasn’t swum or otherwise exercised in a long time, so he’s out of practice and out of breath. He’s at a beach (on the ground), and he is the only person there, aside from another man, Kyle, who was swimming but is now drowning. Kyle is at a considerable distance from Jake, enough to put Jake’s ability to save him without dying himself in reasonable doubt. In such a scenario, do you think it is morally obligatory for Jake to attempt a rescue rather than to call 911?

    While I would agree that it is morally virtuous to save people, is it really a moral obligation if an attempted rescue puts your own life at reasonable risk? After all, you do have to think about your own family and friends—basically, the people who love you—and especially those whose well-being depends on your own ability to provide for them, like your children. And even if you don’t have anybody in your life, is it still a moral obligation?

    I’d like to hear your thoughts. How far would you go when assigning moral obligation to the act of rescuing someone?


    1. “Is it always morally obligatory, though? I think it would be judged on a case-by-case basis”

      Right. The idea with all moral generalisations is that there would be a sort of silent cateris paribus clause (‘other things being equal’). It is good, in general, to help people who are drowning, even though there are possible situations, like where the person is hooked up to a doomsday device that would necessarily go off only if they were rescued, etc. I wasn’t trying to say that each and every situation that can be described by the words ‘saving someone who is drowning’ have to be both good and obligatory, I’m just saying that there obviously are cases like that, and those are the ‘usual’ ones. If you are in a normal situation, and see a random person drowning, you should try to help them if you can. Even though there are cases which are similar where you might not have to, there clearly are cases were you do. That’s all. And I suspect that, now I have made that clearer, you agree as well. Yes, context matters, but no, that doesn’t mean we can’t identify generalisations.

      The same issues are present in non-moral (even scientific) generalisations as well, of course. There is a wine glass on the table. It has the property of fragility, and that means that given a relatively low impact energy of falling off the table, it will shatter. That seems like a reasonable generalisation, so thats true for all similarly fragile items, and seems bound up with the idea of fragility itself. Thats the case, even if there is a wine glass near the edge of a table over a hard floor, but where the glass is wrapped up in bubble-wrap. Even though that wine glass won’t smash, the generalisation is still basically true. It applies to the ‘normal’ circumstances, which is all we can ever hope to do with a generalisation. That probably isn’t the best explanation, but its the one that came to mind. Hopefully you can see what I’m saying.

      As for your example, I’m not sure exactly what the right thing to do is. Real life is full of ambiguities, and moral choices are hard to evaluate in these situations. I certainly don’t think that everyone should always do things that would very likely lead to their own death in order to discharge their moral obligations. Again, all I wanted to point out is that in certain (‘usual’) circumstances, you should jump in to help. That’s true even though there are similar cases where you shouldn’t jump in, and ones (like your example) where it is very hard to know what to say. I’m not trying to dodge here, but this is a question of practical ethics, whereas all I have to offer here is a point about meta-ethics.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Sado-masochism just involves people who enjoy inflicting pain on people who enjoy receiving it. So long as the masochists consent to it, that’s fair enough. Not my cup of tea, but not morally wrong. Unbridled sadism, where the victims do not consent, is clearly wrong. I don’t think boxing is wrong, but cock fighting is.

      These are questions of practical ethics, whereas CS was making a point about meta-ethics. Not the same thing.


      1. Thank you. Cock fighting is ‘morally’ rong – why? As is vivisection or eating meat? But not animals in the jungl – tho nature red in tooth n claw pace Tennyson) owing t human instrumentality? where is this moral spirit level that the theist keeps demanding’v atheists.


  5. It would be interesting if you would actually expose public atheist charlatans. But you can’t, since you are an atheist too, through your “gun to the head” method or deduction.


    1. I don’t really get your comment. It’s on a post where I was criticising a pop atheist. You are saying I can’t critique atheists because I’m an atheist, on a post where I critique an atheist??

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, you are critiquing an atheist, but you are not truly exposing the error. You are exposing an error within a frame that’s error itself. Thus not only are you not exposing true error, but you are actually reinforcing that there is no error in a frame.

        The error I’m talking about is atheism itself. Atheistic position cannot be rationally concluded. You yourself, as I recall, use “gun to the head” method to come to atheistic position. It is good that you are transparent about it, but I guess you are aware it’s not rational logic.

        So, it would be great if you would expose narratives pop atheists use to describe how they came to atheistic position. Because those narratives are not logic, yet they routinely and loudly present them as such.


  6. I’ve been having a question roll around in my head for awhile now, and your response to CS seems to have brought it up again for me. Can you make a distinction between something being “objectively true” and something “objectively existing?”

    It seems to me that these two uses of the word “objective” need separating. While you define “objective” as being “not dependent on a mind,” you seem to leave out an important clarification which I think is getting people into trouble a lot in these discussions: precisely what property of the subject is independent of a mind? Are you saying something’s truth-value can be independent of a mind, or are you saying something’s existence can be independent of a mind?

    For me, of these two options, I would say only existence can be objective. A truth-value can only be subjective. I think everyone would agree with me on the former, so let me try to explain my current thoughts on the latter and please tell me where I have gone wrong. All of my study on philosophy has come from the internet, so I’m well aware I may be way out of my depth here.

    I claim that Truth is not some thing unto itself which exists in some Platonic realm. I am not a Platonist on this matter. When we say “X is true,” we are saying either X logically follows or X appears to correspond with the observable universe. The former relies solely on logic (i.e. in the form of a syllogism or a mathematical equation), and the latter relies on some epistemology regarding empiricism. Perhaps both rely on an epistemology which could be challenged.

    However, “X is true” is merely a statement, a proposition. Independent of any mind, that proposition does not exist. The words don’t exist, the thought/concept doesn’t exist. Nothing is said, and therefore nothing can be said to “be true.” No declaration of truth or falsity occurs independent of a mind. “True” is a label we humans (or any possible mind can) apply. Without a mind present to state or conceive of a truth-value, there is no truth-value, and therefore no true statement can be true on its own objectively (independent of a mind).

    Some things or entities can exist independent of a mind, but a truth-value cannot. Mathematics cannot exist independent of a mind, but the reality which they describe can. Numbers cannot exist independent of a mind, but the entities which they can enumerate (with our help) can objectively exist. In this same way, as far as I can tell, a truth-value cannot exist independent of a mind. Particular entities can objectively exist or not exist, yet this very statement and its truth value cannot objectively exist, because it is inherently semantical, and semantics are mind-dependent.

    So let’s work with some examples regarding morality.

    1. Rape exists
    2. Rape is wrong
    3. Rape’s wrongness exists

    I assume we would all agree that the first statement is true and it describes an objective state of affairs. But does it? Can we actually say that the existence of rape can occur independent of minds (if that is our definition of objective)? Without minds, rape cannot happen, right? A rapist needs a mind at least to perform the act. Their victim would need some kind of conscious activity either concurrent with the act or after the act for their sexual consent to be violated (if that is our definition of rape). So to take one definition of “objective” (demonstrable) we can accurately claim that rape exists, but to take the other usage of “objective” it cannot exist independent of minds. So the first definition of “objective” would be true in this case, and the second definition of “objective” would be false or not apply. But in either case, we are only relying on the semantics here for our truth to be discovered. Truth seems to rely on semantics for its ontology.

    In the second statement, we recognize this as a moral sentiment, because it uses the implication of “good” or “bad” however you want to define those terms, or if you think they are definable. The entire enterprise of moral philosophy is built upon whether or not we can discover if this statement is true or not. But the sticking point which I think gets brought up time and again in our discussions is illustrated in the third statement.

    For Platonists and many theists, the third statement’s truth-value is “true.” For people like me, the truth-value is “false.” But it seems that in a lot of our philosophical discussions, we conflate 2 & 3 or bounce back and forth between them depending on our argument. In 2, we certainly don’t mean “rape is false,” as that would be incoherent. We mean that rape is something like “inconsistent with the desire for human flourishing” or “inconsistent with God’s nature/desire.” It all depends on how you define “wrong” in this context.

    So the content of the statement “rape is wrong” can be objectively determined (through our subjective experiences, of course) depending on how we define the terms and what our epistemology is, yet the statement itself “rape is wrong” is not objective unto itself. Its truth-value — its “wrongness” — does not exist objectively, independent of human minds. And you cannot come to an “objective truth” about anything, it seems, if truth is contingent upon semantics, and if you are defining “objective” as “independent of a mind.” So when we define objective merely as “not dependent upon a mind” we are leaving the door wide open for someone to conflate “true” and “exist” and use them interchangeably whenever it suits their argument.

    We are the ones labeling something as “true” or “false.” We are the ones concerned with a truth-value, an epistemology, an ontology — the mind-independent universe cannot be concerned about truth, or “contain” truth or somehow “give rise” to truth, if truth, as it seems, is completely reliant on us. Likewise, we are the ones concerned about whether or not we can give our fellow human an “ought” directive. Without any of us, there is no truth-value, and therefore no morality. Morality, then, seems to always be a subjective enterprise, not an objective one.


    1. So the difficulty with trying to separate out truth and existence is that they seem connected in the following way. Take anything that exists; it’s true that this thing exists. This is essentially an instance of the “T-schema”, which says p if and only if it is true that p.

      If you wanted to separate these things out you would have to say that something can exist, but somehow it fails to be true that this thing exists.

      Maybe you think that if there was something existing on its own in a universe with no minds in, then it would exist but it wouldn’t be true that it exists (because truth is subjective).

      Well, here is a sort of worry about that. Imagine you find a cave that nobody has ever gone into before, and in that cave you discover 5 stalagmites in a circle. It’s the case that those stalagmites exist, and it is true that “those stalagmites exist”. But what do you say about their existence before you entered the cave? I think we should say that they existed before we were there and that it was true that they existed before we were there (although nobody knew it at the time).

      Or imagine that before entering the cave you say to me “I predict that there will be 5 stalagmites in a circle in that cave”. I want to say that your prediction was true when you made it (although we didn’t find out till we entered the cave). But your prediction was just:

      1. I predict that: there are 5 stalagmites in a circle in the cave

      And that seems entirely synonymous with:

      2. I predict that: it is true that there are five stalagmites in a circle in that cave

      My point is that my trying to block this sort of interconnection between basic statements about the world and the ‘it is true that…’ versions of those statements, you will find yourself having to construct ever more elaborate semantic accounts of what is going on. By far the most straightforward approach to this just has truths being objective features of the world.

      I can’t prove it to you, but philosophy is a game of subtle evaluations not proofs. I think that in the end it is more trouble than it is worth to try to maintain the position you do.


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