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Peter Williams vs Russ Shafer-Landau

December 30, 2013

Peter S. Williams discussed Russ Shafer-Landau’s arguments about why we should not think objective morality requires God. If Shafer-Landau is correct, then objective morality could exist, even if God doesn’t exist. Although Williams constantly talks about “objective moral values,” Shafer-Landau’s main concern is moral realism. I will take a look at what Williams has to say about Shafer-Landau’s arguments and offer a response.

Williams tells us:

Shafer-Landau thus reduces the premise that ‘If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist’ to the premise that “all laws require a lawmaker”. Even if he can rebut the latter premise, it doesn’t follow that he has rebutted the former premise; but let us examine each precondition of success in turn.

I agree that proving laws do not require a lawmaker would not prove that objective morality doesn’t require God. We need to know why we should think such a thing. Williams gives some arguments, and I have already responded to them. (Go here to take a look.) I did not think they were good arguments.

One argument that God is required for morality is the view that laws require a lawmaker. If laws require a lawmaker and we find out there are moral laws, then there has to be a lawmaker. It is often thought that God must be the lawmaker of moral laws.

Of course, Shafer-Landau is correct when he says that “If you are an atheist, you do, in fact, believe that all objective laws lack a divine author.” But the question here is not what atheists do believe, but rather what they can and should believe. As a rebuttal to the premise “all laws require a lawmaker”, the mere observation that atheists believe in the laws of physics without believing in a creator is lacking (obviously relevant theistic arguments are simply being ignored here).

Shafer-Landau tells us that atheists could reject the view that laws require a lawmaker. Williams implies that God might be required for laws of physics.

We need to know if laws of physics require a lawmaker. So far I see no good reason to think they do. If they do, then perhaps there’s no reason to single out objective morality as something that requires God. Perhaps everything does.

The reason atheists believe in objective laws without a lawmaker is that atheists don’t believe in an objective lawmaker: “Who made the second law of thermodynamics true? No one. If these laws are objective, then we certainly didn’t create them. And if God doesn’t exist, then, obviously, God didn’t make them up either. No one did.” Here we clearly see that Shafer-Landau’s rebuttal of the moral argument is based upon the question-begging assumption that God does not exist. Landau is offering “just an assertion of atheism”, an assertion that theists and agnostics will naturally reject: “It may be that God really does not exist. But unless the atheist can provide compelling argument to that effect, then you theists out there are within your rights to reject [this rebuttal].”

Williams says it is question-begging for Shafer-Landau to say that not all laws don’t require a lawmaker. If he says that he knows laws don’t require a lawmaker, then that is indeed question-begging. However, Shafer-Landau need not conclude that.

If atheists have no reason to think all laws require a lawmaker, then I would not say that they are begging any questions by assuming they don’t. Theists who simply assert that laws require a lawmaker would actually be begging the question.

Prior to argument, we could wonder if we should assume there is a lawmaker or not (for laws of physics or moral laws). Being an atheist might be a reason to assume there is no lawmaker of that sort (and that perhaps not all laws require a lawmaker after all). Should theists assume there is a lawmaker of that sort (or that all laws require a lawmaker) prior to argument? Would a theist be irrational for assuming such a thing? That is not entirely clear. I would not want to say that the theist or atheist is necessarily being irrational for simply having such assumptions.

Moreover, Shafer-Landau does not need to tell theists that they have to be atheists. I don’t think he ever said that. If he did, he would need to argue for it.

Unlike the example of the laws of nature, theists can agree with Shafer-Landau that no one, not even God, ‘invented’ the laws of logic. However, when Shafer-Landau writes that “If you have excellent evidence for one claim, and this entails a second claim, then you should believe that second claim” he equivocates between moral and pragmatic senses of the word ‘should’. Logic qua logic has nothing to say about what objectively ought to be the case morally speaking. Logic can tell us that if we want to accept whatever conclusion is validly deducible from certain premises, then such-and-such is the conclusion that we should accept. But this is a pragmatic (if-then) ‘ought’. Logic can’t tell us that we have a categorical moral obligation to ‘be reasonable’ or to value truth over falsehood. Why not agree with Nietzsche that “The falseness of a judgment is to us not necessarily an objection to a judgment… The question is to what extent it is life-advancing, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-breeding…”? The fact that we can distinguish morality from logic shows that logic isn’t normative in the moral sense of the term. As atheist Kai Nielsen acknowledges: “Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.”

I find this passage to be confused. Williams tells us that moral normativity is different from the normativity of logic. Perhaps, but Shafer-Landau is not arguing that one type of moral claim, which is based on logic/rationality, doesn’t require a lawmaker. That could be an example of begging the question. Also note that Shafer-Landau says that “For instance, the laws of logic and rationality are normative” and yet Williams only talks about logic.

Williams states that Shafer-Landau equivocated two different types of normativity. He says that the moral type of normativity is so different from logical normativity that Shafer-Landau can’t treat them both as examples of normativity. Williams tells us that norms of logic are pragmatic, but norms of morality are not pragmatic. However, these are assertions that need to be argued for, and we also need to know that laws of rationality can’t be normative in the appropriate way. There are people who think that there are laws of rationality that are categorical — that apply to everyone no matter what their interests or goals are. They might say it’s irrational to believe 1+1=3, even if you want to have false beliefs. Perhaps there is something irrational about wanting to have false beliefs in the first place. Williams seems to think that such claims require an equivocation, but that is not obvious.

There could also be some overlap between norms of rationality and morality. Perhaps it is morally wrong to believe things that we know to be false, or to refuse to acknowledge that something is true when it is sufficiently proven to be true.

In fact, there’s an argument for moral realism based on the idea that we should be realists about rationality (called “epistemic realism”). That was Terence Cuneo’s argument in The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism. Here‘s a review of the book. Cuneo argues that norms of rationality are categorical.

Is morality pragmatic or categorical? That itself isn’t entirely clear and it might depend on what “categorical” means. Logic is categorical in the sense that we can objectively know if an argument is valid (without any desires or goals being referenced). Perhaps morality is categorical in the sense that one action is often objectively better than the alternatives (perhaps because it causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number). We would then say that action is “right” or “good” based on that fact.

But Williams doesn’t seem to have that type of categorical normativity in mind. He says we are categorically obligated to do certain things, but logic does not give us categorical obligations. Assuming he is right that we are not categorically obligated by logic (perhaps because having contradictory beliefs would sometimes benefit us), we might wonder if we are categorically obligated to be ethical. Perhaps we would individually often benefit more from being unethical. We might wonder if each person has a sufficient reason to be ethical when she would better off doing something immoral. Even that is not necessarily inconsistent with moral realism.

Moral realism requires that there’s a moral fact. It does not require that everything is a moral fact that we believe about morality. For example, it might be a fact that one action is better than another, but it might not be a fact that we always have a sufficient reason to do the better action.

Williams then discusses Shafer-Landau’s Euthyphro argument:

Shafer-Landau uses the Euthyphro dilemma to argue that: “ethical objectivists – even the theists among them – should insist on the existence of a realm of moral truths that have not been created by God.” I agree. To say that God ‘creates’ moral truths by merely issuing contingent prescriptions entails the self-contradictory claim that objective moral truths are contingent and arbitrary. However, Shafer-Landau jumps from the need to reject the ‘arbitrary’ horn of the Euthyphro dilemma to the conclusion that “even if you believe in God, you should have serious reservations about tying the objectivity of morality to God’s existence.” Here we have a simple non sequitur that equivocates between (a) the conclusion that the objectivity of objective moral values is not grounded in God’s commands and (b) the conclusion that the objectivity of objective moral values is not grounded in God’s essential nature.

Williams agrees that divine commands are not the basis of objective morality (moral facts), but insists that God could still be the basis of morality. I agree with this point, but more would still need to be said. I think Williams has some type of Platonism in mind. God is considered to be an ideal person and we could then compare ourselves to God to see how virtuous we are. The more like God a person is, the better the person is. Of course, we might wonder how we could even compare ourselves to God in the first place. (Also, it is not clear to me how God as an ideal person would tell us that happiness is intrinsically good or suffering is intrinsically bad.)

One major issue James Clayton mentioned recently is that the view that goodness comes from God because God is an ideal seems to require a type of moral realism that is incredibly revisionary. Ultimately nothing a human does would be truly good or right, and a human would never be truly virtuous. Only God would be able to act in ways that are truly good or right, and only God would be truly virtuous. Talk of intrinsic value also seems to be totally lacking — would humans or our experiences have any intrinsic value? If the source of all goodness is God (insofar as God is an ideal person), then it seems like we have no reason to think humans or experiences have intrinsic value. (If we or our experiences do have intrinsic value, that would be a source of moral facts other than God.)

Another question is why Williams was talking about divine commands in the first place. He actually used divine commands as a reason to think moral obligations require God’s existence or moral obligations aren’t objective. Maybe he thinks that divine commands are objective if they are made by a good person (for the right reasons). However, we might not need God for a good person to give other people moral obligations in an appropriate way (by having good reasons to give the obligations). (Check out my previous post for more information.)

Updated 12/30/13

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2013 10:41 pm

    It occurs to me that even theists (usually) accept that there are some laws for which there are no law givers. These are the necessarily true laws (such as mathematical facts). The usual account of omnipotence is that God can only do logically (or perhaps metaphysically) possible acts and certainly not logically impossible acts. Since changing the mathematical facts (or laws) is logically impossible, God could not change the mathematical facts (or laws) or create them (which is a kind of change).

    Thus, (most) theists already accept that laws do not necessarily have lawgivers.

    • December 31, 2013 12:08 am

      Daniel, WIliams did say he agrees (or at least doesn’t disagree) that there are logical laws that have no lawgiver, but he said that logical laws are “pragmatic.” He thinks there’s an equivocation to treat laws of logic like laws of morality.

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