20
back
5 / 06

#188 Moral Law Argument

November 22, 2010
Q

Dear Dr. Craig,

I have another question about objective foundations for morality for you, this time concerning the "veil of ignorance" idea first put forth (as I understand it) by John Rawls. I know that you've already addressed this topic in #116, but (for reasons I will detail below) I'm not entirely satisfied by your positions in that response.

My understanding of the argument as it has developed from Rawls (and please correct me if I am mistaken) is that the rational agreements in concepts like the veil of ignorance result from fundamental metaphysical properties inherent to logic and rationality itself. The fact that these properties are fundamental and inherent establishes their objective existence apart from any subjective beliefs. The fact that rationality is essential and integral to certain forms human interaction and communication essential for social existence establishes that they "ought" to be followed. So you have the two essential conditions for an objective moral standard.

Your response to #116 seems to follow two lines. First, you maintain that completely rational individuals don't exist and that even if they did there is no guarantee that they would agree. But surely, as you often point out, these considerations deal with moral epistemology not ontology. It may be difficult, or even impossible to identify, and agree upon these fundamental properties of reason, but that doesn't have any bearing upon their existence.

Certainly, showing that any particular such conclusions are correct involves demonstrating that the conclusions of others (such as nihilists, egoists, and libertarians) are irrational, but to me this seems to be a problem with any sort of moral epistemology, whether it is based on theism or not. Granted, a theistic morality has the advantage of being able to appeal to revealed truth, but I think that an atheist would probably claim that this actually a disadvantage, particularly since you use an argument from the existence of moral absolutes as part of your cumulative case for the existence of God.

The other position in your response is that no atheistic argument can be made establishing why we "ought" to follow these fundamental principles of rationality, and I'm not sure I find this argument entirely convincing from a purely objective prospective either. It seems to me that if it's true that such objective principles about something that is essential to one of the very things that define us as a species exist, then it's not unjustified to say that we "ought" to live in harmony with these principles, just as the existence of gravity as a fundamental principle of the physical world means that we "ought" not to go around walking off of high cliffs.

It's true that in both cases the "ought" appeals ultimately to self-interest, and I do have an intuitive sense that no objective moral values can be rest solely on that ground. But I also recognize that this is a purely subjective conclusion on my part, perhaps related to the fact that I am a theist. An atheist would claim that because this life and our collective experiences in it are all we have, living in harmony with fundamental principles that underpin those things has moral force.

I suspect that you don't want to abandon the notion that fundamental metaphysical principles inherent to things like logic exist, since it seems to me that they are one of the ways you get your premises in expositions such as the cosmological argument, among others. So, in light of the considerations I've raised, what then from a purely philosophical (as opposed to theological) perspective do you find lacking in arguments for a non-theistic basis for objective morality in concepts like the "veil of ignorance"?

Christopher

United States

Dr. craig’s response


A

The moral law argument

I don’t see how the “veil of ignorance” concept is relevant to the meta-ethical question of whether there are objective moral values and duties. That concept, rather, seems to be a device for determining, given that objective moral duties do exist, what the content of those duties are. For example, if you were behind a veil of ignorance such that you did not know if you were or were not a Jew living in National Socialist Germany, would you think it morally permissible to incarcerate and exterminate Jews? However useful assuming such a perspective might be in determining the content of our moral duties, it does nothing to establish that we have any such duties in the first place.

It seems to me that on naturalism, one standing behind a veil of ignorance, unaware of whether one is oneself a human being (rather than, say, some extraterrestrial) ought to conclude that human morality is just a spinoff of the socio-biological evolutionary process, an extension of the same sort of behavior that is found among social animals from pigs to elephants to baboons because it is useful in the struggle for survival. Standing behind the veil of ignorance, it is easier to face this truth which would be so disconcerting to someone aware that he is himself a human being and therefore intrinsically worthless.

Return, then, to my two points of criticism of the view that the moral thing to do in any situation is whatever ideally rational persons would agree one ought to do. Let’s take my points in the original order in which I presented them.

First, why think that if you could assemble a committee of perfectly rational human beings and they all would agree that you should do some action A, this constitutes a moral obligation for you to do A?

You reply, “if it's true that such objective principles about something that is essential to one of the very things that define us as a species exist, then it's not unjustified to say that we ‘ought’ to live in harmony with these principles, just as the existence of gravity as a fundamental principle of the physical world means that we ‘ought’ not to go around walking off of high cliffs.”

The moral law argument – laws like gravity imply no obligations.

Your own illustration and your use of scare quotes around “ought” betray your position, Christopher. The law of gravity is purely descriptive, not prescriptive. It carries no unconditional obligations whatsoever for me as to where I walk. Now what is true is some sort of conditional statement, for example, “If you want to survive, then you ought not to walk off a cliff.” But I have no obligation to survive nor to stay away from cliffs. Similarly, we may agree, “If we want to promote human flourishing, then we ought to live co-operatively with one another.” That lays no more moral obligation on us than the truth, “If you want this slime mold to flourish, then you should keep the temperature and humidity moderate.”

Pointing out that these “oughts” are purely conditional has nothing to do with theism; a good many atheists agree with this judgement. Nor is this merely a subjective opinion: it is an objective fact that these sorts of obligations make no unconditional claim on us but are merely conditional.

So the first thing lacking from atheistic moral realism is any non-arbitrary, explanatorily adequate basis for objective moral values and duties.

The second point I made was this: The position is question-begging because it just assumes that all perfectly rational people would agree about what our moral obligations are.

To this criticism you reply, “these considerations deal with moral epistemology not ontology. It may be difficult, or even impossible to identify, and agree upon these fundamental properties of reason, but that doesn't have any bearing upon their existence.”

You misunderstand the criticism, Christopher--or perhaps the position at which it is directed. The view is that our moral obligations are actually constituted by how ideally rational people would say we ought to act in a particular situation. This is not a matter of epistemology, finding out what our duties are. Rather the view is that how ideally rational people would say we ought to act actually constitutes a duty for us. If, then, there is no course of action which ideally rational people would agree on in a given situation, we have no moral duty in such a situation.

The moral law argument – Why think that all rational agents would agree about the Good?

To say that ideally rational people would agree in any given situation that we ought to do A is, as I said, to assume that moral minimalists like nihilists, egoists, and libertarians, are all irrational. If they can be ideally rational, then we have no moral duties in any situation, since ideally rationally agents would not agree on a course of action we ought to take. You reply, “this seems to be a problem with any sort of moral epistemology, whether it is based on theism or not.” Not at all; it is only a problem for a view that sees rational consensus as constitutive of moral duty. The theist grounds moral duty in God and makes no requirement of consensus. Indeed, I, for one, have never to my knowledge claimed that those who disagree with me on argumentative grounds are irrational. I think that atheistic nihilists are perfectly rational, given their presuppositions. I think they’re wrong, but hardly irrational, as least as far as the arguments go.

So the second problem with the view in question is that it’s massively question-begging because it assumes without justification that in any given moral situation, ideally rational agents would agree on what we ought to do, that is to say, it just assumes that nihilism is false, which is what is to be proved.

- William Lane Craig