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”

brute moral facts?

It’s not every day you see an article in a theological journal by an atheist.

But lo and behold, the latest issue (downloadable here freely) of American Theological Inquiry includes a ‘guest’ article by Erik J. Wielenberg called “Objective Morality and the Nature of Reality”, which is a rejoinder to a theistic critique in a former issue.  He calls his approach “non-natural, non-theistic, moral realism”.  See for yourself, but when he goes on about “brute moral facts” and doesn’t seem worried that they are without any foundation, I just don’t follow him at all (not that I think the fellow he is critiquing has it sussed either).

toothpaste & philosophical ethics

Ethics has been on the brain for a while – particularly how ethics are formed and shaped by value-judgments about the quality of a given thing.  I’ve did a little image a while back mapping my current understanding of how ethics works philosophically: ontology (what is it?) precedes teleology (what is it for?), which precedes ethics (what is right or wrong?), which precedes laws (what is legally right or wrong?).

Anyway, so I was amused to see some qualitative ontology not so far below the surface of this cultural text – our (Macleans Advanced freshmint) toothpaste tube: “Your mouth is amazing.  Macleans Advanced believes it deserves the Amazing science of TRIPLE PROTECTION.”

it’s going good

This post – in less overtly philosophical language…

We can talk about what something factually is and we can also talk about what it is worth.  Science can tell us factually what a foetus is, but not what it is worth.

We can talk about the way things ‘do’ behave, and we can also talk about the way things should behave.  Science can tell us the way a rapist behaves, but not that rapists should not rape.

value & purpose

Whilst a quantitative ontology is perfectly useful for scientific study, only a qualitative ontology can make the necessary (qualitative) value judgments that form the foundation of ethics. Even the ‘obvious’ idea that suffering is ‘bad’ is a qualitative (‘bad’) ontological (‘is’) statement.

And whilst a descriptive teleology is wonderful for observing how things ‘do’ tend to behave, only a prescriptive teleology can provide goals against which actions can be said to be ethical or not. The observation that rapists ‘do’ tend to have forceful sex is a descriptive (‘do’) teleological (‘tend to’) statement. But only a prescriptive teleology can establish goals with which rape can be said to be inconsistent.

is-for-ought-law

behold “the ladder of ethics” – a.k.a. an explorative conceptualisation of the steps we take (consciously or subconsciously – considered or assumed) when we deal with ethics/morals/laws/etc.

A while back, I did a post called ‘ontos|telos|ethos‘, and I’ll build on that, adding the codification of law (greek: nomos) to the scenario, hence, ontos, telos, ethos and nomos – or οντος → τελος → ηθος → νόμος.

  • Laws (good or bad, subjectively or objectively formed) are based on
  • ethical principles/opinions (good or bad, subjective or objective) which are based on
  • goals or ‘ends’ (good or bad, subjectively or objectively formed) which are based on
  • essence or nature – including what the thing is worth (good or bad, subjectively or objectively formed)

This is a strictly philosophical accounting of ‘the ethical ladder’ (as I understand it currently).  One can give a scientific or empirical accounting of laws, ethics, goals and nature – but it would of course be restricted to scientific (and thus prescriptively indifferent) modes of analysis.  No sorting a good law, principle, goal or nature from a bad one.  Just indifferent, numerical, statistical quantities.

* * *

P.S. – Interestingly, Christianity can be seen in terms of this ‘ladder’ with each rung being revealed through Love.

  • Laws  = the highest Law: Love
  • ethical principle  = do what is Loving
  • goals or ‘end’ = to become like God who is Love
  • essence or nature: all reality grounded in God who’s essence/nature is Love