July 26, 2015
Intransigence about Objective Moral Values
The last few weeks I have been working my way through On Guard (and was, needless to say, thrilled by it, just as I was by Reasonable Faith).
I just had a long conversation with a fellow student of our local university. He knows that I am a Christian, and since the topic shifted toward values and ethics, I began asking him questions about his beliefs on the existence of subjective and objective values - based on the premises that
1. If God does not exist, then objective values do not exist.
2. Objective Values exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
It was a very tough conversation (albeit a cordial one), and I am very glad that my friend is still interested in picking up the conversation where we left off (it is now past 3am in Germany) - he seemed surprisingly hooked by the debate, took his time to think his answers through, and was the one to suggest continuing it sometime soon. (I am praying for him to find Christ).
So I just have a few questions: This person is not unsympathetic, in fact, he is generally kinder than most people I have known.
However, he seems to cling to the belief that objective values do NOT exist - because however bad we might think an action to be, there will never be universal consensus on its being bad.
I tried to explain that this was moving into the realm of subjective values - for instance, even if everyone on earth had been brainwashed and persuaded of national socialism (in which condition the whole world would be subject to a subjective value), this wouldn't change the fact that objectively spoken, the holocaust was still wrong (just like, while the whole world subjectively thought that the earth was flat, objectively the fact remained that it was round, not flat, even when no one believed this). He didn't disagree on this, however he is still not convinced that objective values exist, saying that objectivity only applies to facts, not values.
How could I respond to this?
My friend also does not find any "problem" with the naturalist assumption that without God naturalism reigns and morality is a delusion (Although he does admit that it is a bitter truth) - and although I countered with naturalist, Darwinist and evolutionary arguments (the shark forcing the female to mate, humanity as compared to bees in a hive, the baboon's self-sacrifice as equal to man's conditioned values, etc.), he still clings to this naturalist worldview. (I also might add that he comes from a Chinese background, thought he isn't per se religious at all. I don't even know yet whether he is an agnostic or an atheist, but am destined to find out soon.)
Is there any argument or example I could use that might be able to open his eyes? How am I to adequately continue this conversation?
It is the first time that I have dared to venture into the realm of philosophical debate - and I feel very incompetent, as I am very new to it all.
I would be really grateful for help (and prayers)!
I’ve been told that the attitude that there are no objective moral values or duties is very widespread among German youth, Christina. I find this surprising, almost shocking, in a country that experienced the horrors of Nazism, including the Holocaust. It seems incredible that people would sincerely believe that such an atrocity is morally indifferent.
It makes me wonder if these people are just assuming the truth of atheism, for if they are, then I agree with them that on that assumption there are no objective moral values and duties. That’s just premiss (1) of the argument! So I, like your friend, do not “find any ‘problem’ with the naturalist assumption that without God naturalism reigns and morality is a delusion.” You should not try to counter that belief; you should reinforce it!
But the point is that naturalism can’t just be assumed to be true, for such an assumption would beg the question in favor of atheism. We need to ask ourselves, setting aside the assumption of atheism, do objective values and duties exist? In moral experience we find that various values and duties present themselves to us as objectively binding and true. So why deny that experience?
Your friend’s argument—that “objective values do NOT exist – because however bad we might think an action to be, there will never be universal consensus on its being bad—is a bad argument, as you point out. He’s confusing objectivity with universality. But universality is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of objectivity. Just as I don’t allow a blind person’s failure to observe a tree to lead me to doubt the objective reality of what I see clearly, so I shouldn’t let the moral blindness of the Nazi war criminal lead me to doubt that the Holocaust was evil. To think that a lack of universal consensus undercuts objectivity is to confuse moral epistemology with moral ontology.
Now it sounds as if your friend was convinced by your reply to his objection—way to go, Christina! That’s progress! But now he comes back with a new objection: “objectivity only applies to facts, not values.” Unlike his first objection, this claim is not an argument but merely a reassertion of moral subjectivism. It’s just saying in different words that there are no objective moral values and duties. But what we wanted from him was some reason to doubt the deliverances of our moral experience. He hasn’t provided one.
I see that your friend is Chinese. If he was raised and educated in China, then he may well be presupposing a defunct positivistic epistemology, according to which ethical statements make no factual assertions. He needs to understand that this view, popular in the 1930s and ’40s, has been virtually universally abandoned in Western philosophy. It was rooted in the Verification Principle of meaning, which held that if a statement cannot be empirically verified, it is meaningless and devoid of factual content. This principle was not only implausible, consigning vast tracts of human discourse to meaninglessness, but also proved to be self-defeating, since it cannot itself be empirically verified and so is by its own lights devoid of factual content.
So why can’t it be a fact that the Holocaust was evil? Why can’t it be a fact that the incarceration and gassing of innocent people was wrong? Why can’t it be a fact that Germany society today is, overall, morally better than it was during the 1930s? These seem like facts to me. A fact is just a true statement. Why should I think that these statements are not true?
Louise Anthony, herself a non-theist, put it so well in her debate with me: “Any argument for moral scepticism is going to be based on premisses which are less obvious than the reality of moral values themselves.” Your friend’s scepticism certainly bears out her claim.
You ask if there is “any argument or example I could use that might be able to open his eyes?” That’s a question about his personal psychology. See my QoW #431 concerning unbelievers who refuse to be convinced. You’re giving him good arguments and can’t guarantee that he’ll find them convincing. If he was raised in China, you might use illustrations of moral atrocities that might connect with him, like the rape of Nanking by Imperial Japan or the killing of students in Tiananmen Square. Ask him if he thinks it would be all right for him to betray his parents to the government authorities if they were secretly sheltering a North Korean refugee. Remind him that he has to set aside his presupposition of atheism in answering these questions, since we agree that on atheism there are no objective values and duties. You might also share with him other arguments for God’s existence, so that he can see that the moral argument is part of a powerful cumulative case for Christian theism. And, of course, continue to be his friend, regardless of what he thinks. That personal interest may be more effective in opening his heart than the arguments.
You’re doing a great job, Christina! May God use you in your friend’s life and beyond!