Friday, June 30, 2017

Prescriptive Ought Part 2: The Revenge!



Maverick Christian (hereby MC) took the time to respond tomy post on his conception of a “prescriptive ought” and I’ve just had too much going on in the real world to craft a proper reply till now.   

In the interim he’s also been busy on a few Facebook threads on the Real Atheology page giving some additional descriptions on how he grounds his prescriptive ought, which I’ll be responding to here as well. 


So at first there seems to be some confusion on what MC has meant regarding his prescriptive ought, since I had taken him to mean that the “prescriptive ought” couldn’t have a descriptive component to it.  This was the basis of my rejecting the concept of a prescriptive ought in my previous post, and why I thought even well-established theistic apologists would reject MC’s description.
As it turns out, MC says in his reply that:

“Prescriptive oughts cannot be purely descriptive but they can have at least some descriptive characteristics, such as being ontologically grounded in God's divine commands or providing reasons for action.”

So ultimately the prescriptive ought MC describes is grounded in descriptive facts – on various Facebook threads he’s stated that god’s nature has the property of “ought to be obeyed”.   That’s a descriptive property of a non-moral fact – a fact about a supernatural being (assuming one existed).   
Given this conception, I don’t really have as much of a problem with the concept of a prescriptive ought as I thought I did when we had conducted our debate or my last post, since I thought it entailed rejecting any kind of descriptive component at all.

MC is still far off base when he says that atheism can’t ground this kind of ought however, and I still think that part of an actions moral qualities depend on ones desires to some degree – as I tried to tease out in the Bret vs. Chet thought experiment in my last post.

To show where MC goes off lets step back for a moment and consider what else MC means by “prescriptive ought”, he quotes philosopher Michael Jordan:

"Moral reasons are reasons for all human persons, regardless of what goals or desires they may have."

OK, this seems fair enough, I’d agree that there are some classes of “ought” that would apply regardless of goals or desires one has.   This is what would normally be called “normativity”.

One instance would be rational normativity:  The idea that we ought to believe the conclusion of a valid argument with true premises.   Or that we ought to believe rigorously proven mathematical truths.  Or that we ought to believe the conclusions of empirical science.  

All of this “ought to be done” regardless of whether we want it to be true or not, and regardless of what our goals are.

I don’t have a problem saying that morality falls under this kind of normativity.  We “ought not torture babies for fun” regardless of our other desires. 

So how can atheists provide a ontological grounding to this kind of moral ought?

Well in much the same way MC does with his eventual grounding.  MC says moral oughts are grounded in the nature of god, in that he has the property “ought to be obeyed”.

Well a moral naturalist could say that our “moral obligation to uphold the good and stop the bad” is grounded in the nature of living in a society of moral agents.   Moral agents by their nature are forced into a society, and it is the fact that they exist in that society which impinges on them to behave morally.  Note that this is NOT saying that moral values are relative to a society. 

Here “good” and “bad” would be moral values that are described ultimately by the brute facts of our nature, and the fact that we’re in a society would ground the obligation, not define what is good and bad.   I would define society as the total subset of moral agents that can causally interact with each other. 

This isn’t where the moral naturalists story has to end, and this is a fairly simplistic case – but it would provide the basis for an objective moral system to govern all moral agents in a universe without any supernatural beings.

Conversely, I could reject that idea and become a moral non-naturalist that thinks moral claims don’t reduce down to natural facts, but at the same time don’t have any ‘ontologically weighty implications’ either. 

Here the moral non-naturalist could still agree with the naturalist about what makes something “good” or “bad” – truths established by the brute facts of our biology.  So “being in pain for its own sake” is a “bad-maker”, etc.   What the non-naturalist would say is that this fact is not the same thing as “pain=bad” in an ontological sense.  

When it comes to moral duties, or what we ought to do, they can ground that in the nature of the moral facts combined with being recognized by an agent.  

Consider the following:

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore Socrates is moral.
Contrast with:
  1. Torturing people for fun is intrinsically bad.
  2. Babies are people.
  3. Torturing babies for fun is bad.
In the moral case, we’re not talking about what ought to be done yet, we’re only making statements about values themselves. 


The non-naturalist would then say that as we recognize the validity and truth of the non-moral syllogism and so then have an obligation to believe the conclusion, even if we really wished Socrates was immortal.


Similarly, by recognizing the moral fact of the matter regarding certain actions, we would then have an obligation to act morally when faced with that situation. 


In either case, both the non-naturalist and the naturalist have a grounding to get the kind of ought that applies regardless of our desires and applies equally to all people.  There’s nothing clear in these concepts that makes it the case that we MUST appeal to a god in order to ground this kind of oughtness.  


In fact MC never makes it clear exactly how appealing to his god’s nature as a ground provides any extra work here, that’s just his preferred stopping point. 


Note that this isn’t about moral semantics or moral enforcement, we’re talking about moral ontology.  MC would have quite a lot of work to do in order to show some kind of contradiction in the concepts here in order to rule out the naturalist and non-naturalist options.


This is why even Christian philosophers such as Richard Swinburne reject the moral argument and consider moral truths to be necessary truths, even if a god exists – that is moral truths don’t depend on god.   It’s also why Christian philosophers like Paul Moser also reject the moral argument, including MC’s formulation of it. 


Moral ontology, by the nature of the topic itself, allows for these kinds of options.  Atheism may be deficient when it comes to universal moral enforcement, but not ontology. 

6 comments:

  1. Well a moral naturalist could say that our “moral obligation to uphold the good and stop the bad” is grounded in the nature of living in a society of moral agents.

    As long as we're talking about the prescriptive ought the moral naturalist couldn't correctly do this, because the prescriptive ought is incompatible with moral naturalism, since moral naturalism is the idea that moral facts are simply natural facts.

    Natural facts have no properties beyond that which can be stated entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences (examples include "The atomic number of gold is 79" and "Bob needs an anesthetic to not feel pain"). The language of psychology and the natural sciences is purely descriptive in nature, such that what natural properties are can be expressed entirely in descriptive language. Yet (prescriptive) moral oughtness is not purely descriptive, i.e. what moral oughtness is cannot be stated entirely in descriptive language (it is false that moral oughts have no properties besides purely descriptive ones), whereas what natural facts are can be stated entirely in descriptive language. So we have a property that is held by natural facts but not (prescriptive) moral oughtness, and so there cannot be any identity between the two given the indiscernibility of identicals. Moral oughtness facts may supervene on natural facts, but they are not themselves natural facts.

    The two premises of my deductive reasoning here are (1) there is a property held by prescriptive ought facts not held by natural facts; (2) the indiscernibility of identicals. Premises (1) and (2) imply that prescriptive ought facts are not identical to natural facts. Thus, moral naturalism is false if the type of morality we have in mind is the "prescriptive ought" kind.

    That said, one can conceive of non-natural ontologies for atheism. But it's important to remember that the first premise is not claiming that objective morality cannot exist if atheism is true, it claims objective morality does not exist if atheism is true. My approach is to argue that objective morality's existence is unlikely if God does not exist, and if that's true, then "If God does not exist, then objective morality does not exist" is probably true thanks to a nifty theorem of mathematics and propositional logic. So while I happily concede that there's no contradiction between objective morality's existence and atheism, I don't need to show there is such a contradiction to justify the moral argument's first premise.

    It’s also why Christian philosophers like Paul Moser also reject the moral argument, including MC’s formulation of it.

    If you read the link, it becomes apparent that Paul Moser did not correctly understand my argument before criticizing it. He stopped criticizing it after I apparently cleared up his misunderstanding (though he still might not agree with it). Also, the link you give there was a different kind of moral argument, whereby I argued that if God does not exist then moral knowledge does not exist.

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    1. You're simply begging the question against the moral naturalist. It makes no sense to say that "all natural facts can be stated as descriptive facts" when that's literally what is in contention.

      We're arguing over where "oughtness" comes from. I can similarly say that "facts about god's nature can be stated in purely descriptive terms".

      You literally just "describe god" by saying that he has the property of "ought to be obeyed" to get your prescriptive ought.

      There's nothing to stop a moral naturalist from saying facts about us as moral agents in a society where we can causally interact with each other while recognizing moral values* serves as the foundation for moral obligations.

      In this way the moral naturalist prescriptive ought is grounded in facts about a society of moral agents, much the same way you ground "ought to be obeyed" as a fact about god's nature.

      In your two step logic I can easily reject premise 1, if I were so inclined to hold to moral naturalism in the face of your arguments.

      As far as non-naturalism - I'd say that you're presenting another version of the moral argument that is very different than Craig's or the standard Biola crap. That theorem of yours doesn't prove the deductive premise that "if god does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist". At best you'd modify the premise to say "If god does not exist then objective moral values and duties probably do not exist", which again the non-naturalist could respond to and reject.

      Finally as for Moser, he didn't misunderstand your argument, he literally stopped responding to you, as most professional philosophers will do once buried deep in a comment thread where they've pointed out the same error multiple times and the other person won't stop commenting.

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    2. You're simply begging the question against the moral naturalist. It makes no sense to say that "all natural facts can be stated as descriptive facts" when that's literally what is in contention.

      I don't think it is, at least not with the definitions I'm using when I make that claim. By "natural facts" I just mean facts that can be expressed entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences, e.g. “The atomic number of gold is 79” and “Bob needs an anesthetic to not feel pain.” The language of chemistry etc. is entirely descriptive language. Could words like "ought" or "should" be defined to be synonymous with natural facts (e.g. flourishing)? Absolutely, but any such ought would be a descriptive ought, not a prescriptive one. Natural facts can be expressed entirely in descriptive language, but prescriptive ought facts cannot. Prescriptive ought facts are therefore not natural facts.

      And just so that we're on the same page when I speak of "descriptive language": very roughly, descriptive language is language that either (1) does not contain "ought-type" words and phrases like “ought” or “should” or "you are obligated to"; or (2) language that is synonymous with statements described in (1) even if it contains ought-type words and phrases. Thus, by what I mean by descriptive language, a statement like “As a matter of practical necessity, you need to study to do well in school” is descriptive since it fits category (1). The statement “If you want to do well in school, you ought to study” is descriptive if it means, “As a matter of practical necessity, you need to study to do well in school” since it would thereby fit category (2). A descriptive state of affairs is a state of affairs that can be stated entirely in descriptive language. The language of psychology and the natural sciences is, in this sense, entirely descriptive.

      We're arguing over where "oughtness" comes from. I can similarly say that "facts about god's nature can be stated in purely descriptive terms".

      You could, but whether facts about God's nature can be stated entirely in descriptive language would depend upon your theology; e.g. if "God has a prescriptive ought-to-be-obeyed quality" as an essential property, what God is could not be expressed entirely in descriptive language.

      That theorem of yours doesn't prove the deductive premise that "if god does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist".

      Right, but that was never my claim. My actual claim is that the theorem proves that "Given A, C is probably true" entails "Probably, if A then C" when e.g. A is God does not exist and C is objective morality does not exist.

      Finally as for Moser, he didn't misunderstand your argument

      Think about it. Moser disagreed with my claim that "Whether moral facts are natural facts depends greatly on one's moral semantics" and called it a "category mistake." What was my actual view? "Whether moral ought facts are identical with natural facts depends greatly on moral semantics" because what a moral fact is depends on what we mean by "moral fact," and in that sense it depends on our moral semantics (e.g. if we defined "moral wrongness" as "forbidden by God" then moral wrongness facts would not be natural facts). Paul seemed to have something very different in mind from what my actual view was here, right?

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    3. You're missing the point.

      All you're doing is baking the "prescriptive ought" into a descriptive fact about god. That kind of move can just as easily be done with a subset of natural facts - if one wanted to be a naturalist moral realist.

      This is especially a problem since you seem to grant that one can ground moral values in natural facts. Once you've allowed that, the naturalist can simply say that prescriptive moral obligations just are a general principle that "beings capable of recognizing moral values ought to uphold the good and thwart the bad", and ground the obligation in the natural fact that humans can recognize moral values.

      So we would reject the idea that natural facts can all be reduced down to purely descriptive statements. Good luck arguing for that premise without begging the question.

      Per Moser's comments you're confusing moral semantics with moral ontology - and well you just ought not to do that! ;)

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    4. Per Moser's comments you're confusing moral semantics with moral ontology

      How am I doing that exactly? Remember, Moser based his objection on a misconstrual of my actual position (recall the question in my earlier comment that Moser “seemed to have something very different in mind from what my actual view was here, right?”). The actual position that Moser didn’t recognize stems from the uncontroversial claim that whether a given statement is true depends largely on what that statement means; e.g. whether “moral ought facts are natural facts” is true depends largely on what we mean by the terms “moral ought fact” and “natural fact.” Abstracting a bit for a related claim I made, my position is “If ‘moral ought fact’ means x and natural fact means y, then since x is not a y, moral ought facts are not natural facts on this semantics.”

      So what are my semantics? “Descriptive facts” and “descriptive oughts” are those that can be expressed entirely in descriptive language (confer my earlier comment on what I mean by “descriptive language”). A “prescriptive ought” is that type of ought that is not a descriptive ought (and thus can’t be expressed entirely in descriptive language); it prescribes and is not purely descriptive, e.g. “You should not torture infants just for fun.” Prescriptive ought facts are thus not descriptive ought facts. By “natural facts” I mean facts that can be expressed entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences, and since such language (of chemistry etc.) is entirely descriptive, natural facts are descriptive facts. My definition of “moral ought fact” uses the prescriptive ought, and since prescriptive ought facts are not natural facts (because natural facts are descriptive facts), moral ought facts are not natural facts given my definitions of “moral ought facts,” “natural facts,” etc. Summarizing:

      (1) All natural facts are purely descriptive (they can be stated entirely in descriptive language).

      (2) Moral ought facts are not purely descriptive (it is false that moral oughts have no properties besides purely descriptive ones).

      (3) Therefore, moral ought facts are not natural facts.

      That said, the statement “moral ought facts are natural facts” can be true if you use different semantics from what I’m using; e.g. if the “moral ought” is a descriptive ought, having no properties besides purely descriptive ones. Whether “moral ought facts are natural facts” is true depends on what you mean by your terms.

      All you're doing is baking the "prescriptive ought" into a descriptive fact about god.

      That’s not true if by “descriptive fact” we mean “a fact that can be stated entirely in descriptive language” since by definition a prescriptive ought cannot be stated entirely in descriptive language. So if “God has an essential prescriptive ought-to-be-obeyed quality” is a fact, it is not a descriptive fact. Prescriptive ought facts cannot be descriptive facts.

      This is especially a problem since you seem to grant that one can ground moral values in natural facts.

      I’m not sure that’s true; moral values (e.g. justice) seem to be the sort of thing we prescriptively ought to value (in at least some conceivable circumstance), and if that’s a defining characteristic of moral values, moral value facts are not natural facts.

      It bears repeating: whether “moral ought facts are natural facts” is true depends on what we mean by our terms. Given how I was defining the terms though, it seems clear that moral ought facts are not natural facts.

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  2. Incidentally, if you're interested in my argument from moral knowledge you linked to (the Paul Moser Facebook discussion), a nicely formatted explanation of it can be found here.

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