Language and Religion Part II: On Religious Morality
Sep 9, 2011

Language and Religion Part II: On Religious Morality

In the second installment of Language and Religion, we look at the question of absolute morality and some of the confusions that result from issues of semantics and language. Previously we looked at deism, in part I, and agnosticism, in part III. As we will see once again, the central theme of this series is one where investigating the meaning and imprecision of common words reduces much of the debate to vacuousness.

This post is motivated in part based on a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on the topic of objective morality. One can watch the debate here, but because it is rather long this post will provide commentary that stands alone without needing to watch it.

Craig aimed to defend two claims: firstly, that with God there is an objective foundation for morality and, secondly, that without God there is not. Let us consider the first of these. When anyone tries to spend some time deriving a conclusion, it is worth clearly investigating how we define the words involved, in this case the key words being "deity" and "objective morality". We will see how loose language surrounding the term "deity" results in a confusion between two separate concepts, each of which is easily dealt with when clearly identified. The second question - on naturalistic accounts of objective morality - will be taken up in a latter post.

Imagine if we define a deity as being an entity with the explicit property that this diety indues an absolute morality in the universe. To "deduce" then that the deity indues an absolute morality is an empty tautology; one is just defining one's conclusion. Craig never defined a diety precisely in these terms but instead used the body of language usually used by the religious to describe God: that he is the embodiment of good, the antithesis of evil, and the like. This loose language, however, is functionally equivalent to defining a deity with the property I described, perhaps with other properties added as well. Craig did imply his deduction was "obvious" on many occasions, but didn't acknowledge this was true because it is vacuous.

If we are not going to just assume our conclusion and want instead to make a meaningful deduction then we have to strip away the "induing absolute morality" property. One can attempt to define deities without this property quite easily. For example, it could be the classic "first cause" deity whose sole property is that it created the universe. One can imagine an evil (by our conception) first cause deity or an ambivalent first cause deity. The key point is going to be that if we don't assume it by definition, there doesn't appear to be a way (and Craig certainly didn't show one) to deduce the absolute morality result.

One of the central issues in moral ontology is the is-ought problem. Namely, there is no way to deduce normative statements about what we ought to do from descriptive is statements about the nature of the universe. This was a key way that Craig dismisses Harris's moral objectivity by arguing that any man made descriptive system cannot yeild a normative system. However, if we are in the latter case of a deity defined without regards to it being that which indues absolute morality, then the existence of the deity is just an is statement that describes the universe. As such, to subscribe to the is-ought problem being a fallacy is to believe that it is a fallacy to deduce absolute morality from the existence of a first cause or similar deity. In the same way that humans saying a thing is good doesn't make it so because of the is-ought problem, a deity saying something is good doesn't necessarily make it so.

This problem can actually be entirely resolved by another trick of language. Namely, if one defines a deity to have the property that it breaks the is-ought problem, then the is-ought problem goes away. Craig never says anything approaching this property, so it is reasonable to assume he is not assuming it.

Craig's first contention thus walks the line between these two problems. Either his loose description of God's goodness crosses the line into vacuously assuming the conclusion, or one hasn't and the is-ought fallacy applies to make the goodness of a deity's will just as questionable normatively as anybody else. Harris only briefly attacked this philosophical contention (preferring to focus on his own system of morality and to deride how immoral the Christian morality seems to us) but when he did it was largely on this second vein and not the first. My impression, however, is that Craig's language, loose as it was, was much more in the first category than the second.

Read: Part I: On Religious Morality | Read Part III: On Agnosticism

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