Friday, June 05, 2009

All religious morals are arbitrary

All religious morals — at least all interesting religious morals — are arbitrary, in the sense of "subject to individual will or judgment without restriction; contingent solely upon one's discretion: an arbitrary decision" or "having unlimited power; uncontrolled or unrestricted by law; despotic; tyrannical: an arbitrary government."

The proof is simple. We can divide all ethical statements into three categories:
  1. Ethical beliefs that correspond to deep biological and psychological characteristics of human beings
  2. Ethical beliefs (economic relations) directly impelled by the means of production and sensitively dependent on the specific means of production
  3. Everything else
It's clear that we place an ethical belief in the first category if it has an naturalist justification. Even if a society is not sophisticated enough to actually work out the naturalistic justification, social evolution will ensure that a society that adopts beliefs contrary to deep human biological or psychological characteristics will not long survive. (Avoid the adaptationist fallacy, a fallacy of the converse: that a feature that does survive for a long time is not sufficient justification for its adaptivity.) A society will not long survive that condones its members killing each other willy-nilly, with no socially constructed rules at all.

Economic relations, however deep their justification in scripture, don't survive substantive changes in the means of production; when the means of production change, the religious themselves give up these ethical beliefs. One need only look at the Abrahamic religions' justification for slavery: once slave-based economic relations were superseded by industrialization, the (successful) religions and sects "reinterpreted" their scripture to condemn slavery.

So that leaves the third category. Lacking a naturalistic or economic justification, these beliefs are therefore arbitrary, even on the theistic account of moral ontology: they are subject to the will and judgment of the deity, by definition an essentially personal being. (Deism, pantheism, and panentheism make no ethical claims, and its unclear that they make any interesting ontological claims.)

It's well-established in sociology and anthropology that arbitrary socially-constructed beliefs serve to define an in-group. Assuming that both the in- and out-groups are naturalistically adapted (a prohibition against capricious killing doesn't serve well to define an in-group), it is precisely the arbitrariness of these beliefs that allow them to serve as a group definition. It's unlikely that anyone outside the group would adopt the belief by chance; if it were adopted by chance it would not be preserved and reinforced by physical reality.

Hence, all interesting religious ethical beliefs are arbitrary. Q.E.D.


  1. So that leaves the third category. Lacking a naturalistic or economic justification, these beliefs are therefore arbitrary, even on the theistic account of moral ontology: they are subject to the will and judgment of the deity, by definition an essentially personal being.

    Interestingly, of late some Christians have attempted to get away from the first horn of Euthyphro's dilemma, as described above, by positing that morality is not subject to the judgment of their deity. They've taken to claiming that morality is grounded in their god's nature, which is all good (whatever that means), and is not free to vary in any particular (ie. is not arbitrary, or so they claim.) According to this construction, god does command certain things, but can't command just anything whatsoever, and the goodness of the commands are not derived by virtue of god having commanded them, but by virtue of the commands squaring up with his nature.

    Personally, I think this construction impales itself quite neatly on the second horn. It succeeds only in rolling up the external standard to which a god would be held into the "person" of the deity in question. It's a nice piece of obscurantism designed to rhetorically conceal the fact that even a deity would have to meet certain standards to be considered ethical by humans.

    Your thoughts?

  2. It's a nice piece of obscurantism...

    I concur with your analysis. If you like, flesh it out with some references and examples, and I'll publish it on the blog.

  3. Took me a while to recall where, exactly, I had seen this, but here's an example;

    Note, though, that his goodness is absolutely not arbitrary in the sense that he could have chosen anything at all to be good, or in the sense that he could change his mind about the good later this afternoon. God’s goodness is certainly not arbitrary in that sense, for it is fixed in his nature.

    It was a pretty long, free-wheeling discussion, and I'm sure there's more and better examples in there and on Tom's site. I may be able to find more for you tomorrow.

  4. The concept of counterfactuals does become dicey when talking about a deity; but no more dicey really when talking about an ordinary person.

    What does it mean to say, for example, that I personally — as a very ordinary human being — could have chosen differently in some case? My choice was in some sense compelled by my personality or individual will, which is what is is: I am myself, not someone else. There must be some aspects of my individual will that are invariant (or that would make me in a substantive sense a different person if they were to change); some of my choices must depend on these invariants.

    I suspect that Christians are conflating the two senses of arbitrary: the sense cited in the post "subject to individual will" and the alternative sense of capricious or easily changeable.

    We get into real trouble when we assign any property (or set of properties to a deity that is not logically necessary), i.e. the deity could have the property or its inverse without logical contradiction. There's no logical contradiction between having the property of abhorring rape, of praising rape, or being neutral about rape.

    Our usual account of "possible worlds" is that there is one possible world for each set of particular properties that are not internally logically contradictory. On the other hand, the usual account of a deity as a "necessary" being holds that the deity is identical in all possible worlds. So, in effect, those properties labeled "good" must be held by the deity in all possible worlds. But we label only those properties as good and bad that can logically go either way. For example, it's impossible, not immoral, to be 6' tall and be not 6' tall. We call it bad to murder (in the descriptive sense) someone precisely because murder is not only logically possible, not only physically possible, but murder is actually physically instantiated in this actual world. Since it is logically possible to want to murder someone, there must exist some possible world in which God wants us to murder each other. But God (presumably) does not want us to murder each other in this world, and God is identical in all possible worlds, therefore there are logically possible worlds that aren't logically possible.

    I might turn this into a post.

  5. Joseph Scaliger6/8/09, 7:27 AM

    But don't you think all ethics are arbitrary (in the sense that they subjective)?

    If all ethics are subjective and relative, why, then, should someone prefer secular ethics to religious ethics?

  6. A Philosopher6/8/09, 12:31 PM

    Versions of your argument from "possible worlds" are available any time that a metaphysical necessity that is not a logical necessity is proposed. Thus any of the standard Kripkean non-logical necessities -- "water is H20", "Hesperus is Phosphorus", "Elizabeth Alexandra Mary is the daughter of Albert Frederick Arthur George", "This table has not always been made of ice") -- will produce the same problem. The standard response to these cases is to drop the assumption that metaphysical and logical possibility coincide.

    The argument in your main post suffers from an unjustified assumption that ethical norms that are not biological or economic are arbitrary. Many ethical theories, such as Moorean non-naturalism, will reject this assumption.

  7. Joseph: If I'm stuck with arbitrary ethics, I prefer my own.

  8. Another reason I'm glad philosophers don't work in the math department. None of you, no matter your ideology, can do a proof worth a flip.

    Your argument is inductive, and it is not even cogent at that.

  9. Anon: If you're going to condemn me of lack of rigor, it seems odd that:

    a) you don't comply with my comment policy against anonymous comments

    b) you don't support your assertions with any analysis.

    All I know is that you don't like my post. I don't even know why you don't like it, much less whether your reasons have merit.

    6.5 billion people have no interest in what I have to say. If your only intention is to say you're one of them, you're wasting my time and your own.

  10. A Philosopher: I've never seen a good account of "metaphysical possibility" that a) differs from logical possibility and b) differs epistemically from theology: i.e. making shit up and calling it true.

    It's not dropping an assumption to assert that metaphysical and logical possibility do not coincide, since metaphysical possibility is more restrictive than logical possibility. One must create assumptions to specify the restrictions, either in general or in particular.

    Ethical theories that create additional categories suffer from their own flaws, notably being completely full of shit.

    The more general argument, though, is to separate ethical norms that can somehow, anyhow, be justified naturalistically, and those that cannot. Those that can be justified naturalistically do not of course require a deity or religious institution; those that cannot are absurd and should be abandoned (and apologetically useless).


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