ethical being

Pardon the double negative, but it’s not for no reason that the title of philosopher, author and atheist, Dr. Erik J. Wielenberg’s article in a recent issue of the American Theological Inquiry (yes, a theological journal published an article by an atheist) is called “OBJECTIVE MORALITY AND THE NATURE OF REALITY”.  Views of morality and reality are inseparable.  Ontology is logically prior to ethics.  One’s views on ‘ought’ are based on one’s views on ‘is’.  ((I should say before going further that not all atheists argue for ‘objective’ morality.  Many happily admit that it is subjective.  Here I’m only interacting with those atheists who, like Wielenberg, argue for objective morality.))

My claim is this: It seems to me that atheism is characterised by a circular ontology – both quantitatively and qualitatively.

First, Atheistic Quantitative Ontology is circular in that it is self-referential. The arrow of logical explanation does not point beyond reality to an other, but turns back onto itself.  Ultimate explanation rests in nature itself and not in any other entity.  Reality as a whole (whether we call it nature, the universe or the multiverse) doesn’t need anything ‘else’ besides itself to be completely, fully and finally ‘explained’, and reality is self-caused, self-originating and self-ordered.  Sagan transposed the Judeo-Christian meaning of the name YHWH into a naturalistic key with the assertion “The universe is all that there is, all there ever was, and all that there ever will be.”  Self-existent reality is also self-explanatory.  The lid of reality is closed.  ((Humble atheists will acknowledge that because proving a negative is impossible, they cannot absolutely rule out a G(g)od, but they confidently assert that reality is fully ‘explained’ (‘or at least can be in principle’ some will say) without recourse to any kind of G(g)od.))

Second, Atheistic Qualitative Ontology (a la Wielenberg) is circular and self-referential in that it claims that basic moral value is self-explanatory, or to use langauge more proper to the field of ethics, that it needs no foundation (!!!).  Here’s some relevant excerpts from his article:

Objective morality, on this view, has no foundation external to itself. (p77, emphasis mine)

I propose, then, that objective morality rests on a foundation composed of brute ethical facts. Such ethical facts are foundational in at least two senses. First, they are ontologically foundational. By this, I mean that they have no explanation outside of themselves; no further facts make them true. Second, they are epistemologically foundational. By this, I mean that they can be known to be true in a direct way; they need not be inferred from other things that we know. (p79)

…moral properties (such as goodness) supervene or depend upon non-moral properties. Thus, if a given entity is good, it is good in virtue of or because of certain non-moral properties of that entity. Pleasure, for instance, is good because of the qualitative feel that pleasure has. Persons are valuable, and possess certain rights, because of certain capacities they have—for instance, the capacity to experience pain, and to reason. (p80)

The last quotation is particularly revealing of this qualitative ontological circularity. Pleasure is said to be ‘good’ (the most basic or foundational of qualitative, ontological judgments!) simply because of ‘the qualitative feel’ it has.  In other words, pleasure is good because it is pleasurable.  The foundation for the qualitative value is the qualitative judgment itself.  He expands on this later in the article, laying out this “brute ethical fact”:

Necessarily, any being that can reason, suffer, experience happiness, tell the difference between right and wrong, choose between right and wrong, and set goals for itself has certain rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and certain obligations, including the duty to refrain from rape (in typical circumstances).

Not only are ‘right and wrong’ (which the said being is meant to distinguish between!) undefined (which is the entire point of the wider discussion), but he also fails to explain why or how entities with ‘the capacity to experience pain, and to reason’ come to have ‘rights’ and ‘obligations’.

In summary of what became a longer post than intended:

  • Atheistic Quantitative Ontology asserts that reality “just is”
  • Atheistic Qualitative Ontology asserts that certain things are “just good”

4 thoughts on “ethical being”

  1. Sorry, Dale. This is a trivial argument in the same way that numbers are needed to explain numerical concepts, minds are needed to discuss minds, and so on. If that’s a weakness, then that’s it, I’m afraid: all reasoning and imaginings and experiences are weak. And that furthers our knowledge – our ontology – exactly how?

    Ontology is wholly dependent on the quality of the epistemology used to inform it. The quality is not based on some imagined exterior hard and fast metric or as some gift bestowed on us by a supernatural critter but on its effectiveness of some workable application here and now. That’s a sliding scale or practicality, reliability, consistency, predictability, and so on. The more of these that align produces a move of our understanding towards ontological consensus.

    Good luck in your quest moving ‘beyond’ what’s real, ‘beyond’ the universe, ‘beyond’ the natural to take a look back in order to avoid this charge of operating inside a reality with the lid closed. The only thing moving anywhere is imaginary, which is then negated according to this argument because it too is centered in the here and now within the constraints of your biological body.

    Objective morality stands in contrast to the purely subjective. Although morality appears subjective by how we define the motivation for behaviours on this metric of good and evil, its consistent expression beyond subjective constraints like culture and language and so on reveals something more than just the individual subjective expressions. It reveals a species-wide code of conduct we assign with moral terminology. Some behavioural examples of moral conduct even go beyond the species boundary. Does that lend evidence to a supernatural origin for what we call morality? Well, until biology can be ruled out as the causation of this common moral code of conduct, I don’t think so. In fact, it appears that biology is the main fount of our behaviours of conduct we call moral.

  2. Perhaps Dale, you should allow atheists to characterize themselves rather than speaking for them. I certainly don’t characterize my atheism the way you claim. It’s simy a matter if not believing in gods.

    Similarly Wielenberg’s non-naturalistic morality really should only be attributed to him – not atheists on general.

    It would be more interesting to provide your own perspective on these questions rather than critique others. What about you defining “right” and “wrong” and explaining how people come to have tights and obligations?

    That would interest me.

  3. Tildeb,
    In terms of epistemology, how do we know that ‘effectiveness’ (‘some workable application here and now’) is the proper basis for ontological quality? How do we know what is ‘practical’? Are you denying that natualistic value-judgments are without foundation?

    And the consistency of moral expression only shows the degree to which qualitative judgments are shared, NOT their degree of objectivity. Inter-subjectivity, but not objectivity.

    And biology is equally the fount of behaviours we call immoral.

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