Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

If Naturalism Is True, Can Objective Moral Values Exist?

One of the most important arguments in favor of theism in general and Christianity in particular is the moral argument. The moral argument is important for theism mainly as part of a cumulative case that the universe was created by an intelligent, personal, good Creator. But it serves an even more important function for Christianity because it puts its finger on the core issue addressed by the Christian message: what is our essential problem and what is the solution? Christianity claims that humanity's main problem is a moral one: we stand condemned before a perfectly good, loving, and just God. And it claims that God himself has provided our only solution: He has come to Earth in the person of Jesus Christ to bear our sin and to reconcile us to himself. That is why the moral argument, in at least some form, is simply unavoidable for those seeking to explore Christianity. If there is no objective standard of good and evil, then Christianity is not just false, it is meaningless. My goal in this essay is not to defend the entire moral argument, but to examine a question that is very important to its soundness: can objective moral values exist in the absence of God?

My aim is to show that naturalism, the worldview which says that Nature is all that exists, cannot provide a basis for the existence of objective moral values. Thus, if we believe that objective moral values do exist, we will have to seek for a basis outside the realm of nature. For those readers who already agree with the claim that objective moral values are imcompatible with naturalism and are quite ready to deny that objective moral values exist at all, I recommend my essay 'Do objective moral values exist?', which defends their existence on empirical grounds. I would also like to suggest to moral relativists who might be reading this essay that they should consider whether they do, after all, actually believe what they claim to believe. In most cases, I find that they do not. When a moral relativist is exposed to horrendous wickedness, every fiber of their being cries out against their own intellectual beliefs. Like most human beings, they cannot help but feel moral revulsion towards rape or child molestation. They intuitively recognize that concepts of 'good' and 'evil' exist objectively, even though they deny this claim intellectually. Nonetheless, in this essay I will focus not on moral relativists who deny that objective moral values exist, but on moral realists who claim that the existence of objective moral values is compatible with naturalism.

A few clarifications before I begin. First, by 'objective moral values', I mean moral facts that are true independent of human beliefs. For instance, if I say that rape is objectively evil, I mean that rape is evil whether or not everyone in the world thinks it is good. Second, I am certainly not arguing that naturalists cannot engage in moral behavior. They certainly can and I know of no person who argues otherwise. The question is not whether naturalists can engage in moral behavior, but whether they can provide a basis for thinking that this behavior is objectively good within their own worldview. It is this latter proposition that I deny.

I will make my case using two thought experiments, both based on common philosophical ideas: the 'veil of ignorance' and Searle's Chinese Room. The goal of these thought experiments is to test the claim that we can provide a basis for the existence of objective moral values if naturalism is true. In other words, if nature is all there is, can something be objectively 'good' or 'evil'? Or is it necessary for something outside of nature to provide a basis for these concepts?

First, let's consider an argument using the 'veil of ignorance'. The 'veil of ignorance' is a device often used in discussions of ethics. We imagine a group of people who are shut in a room and charged with creating a perfect society. Once their plan for the perfect society is devised, we judge an action to be 'good' if it conforms to the standards of this perfect society and 'evil' if it contradicts the standards of this society. The obvious problem with this scenario is that the people might well construct a society which maximizes their own power and happiness at the expense of society at large. For instance, a tall woman in our Rawls room might claim that in a perfect society, all citizens would be the chattel slaves of tall women. As a result, we add to our scenario a 'veil of ignorance' which prevents all members of our hypothetical group from knowing about their own characteristics. Therefore, even the most selfish member of this group would not create a society in which the majority of people are oppressed, since he himself might end up among this number. The perfect society envisioned by this group would then serve as a basis for distinguishing good from evil. The appeal of this 'Rawls room' is that it purports to furnish an objective basis for ethics even if the humans in the Rawls room are motivated by nothing more than self-interest. Presumably, there is some society which the members of our hypothetical Rawls room would actually envision and this society is the objective standard by which we can judge actions ethical or unethical.

Although this scenario is intriguing, I would argue that for the naturalists, it is clearly inadequate. The reason that we imposed the 'veil of ignorance' is that we recognize the dangers of selfish motivations among our Rawls room participants. However, we did not go far enough. We simply assumed that all the participants of our Rawls room were human. Why should this be the case? We might easily imagine that human beings in our Rawls room would vote to create a society in which human beings cruelly exploited all non-human species on the planet. Provided this society were sustainable, the humans in our room would suffer no risk of falling under this oppression and would gladly create such a civilization. Of course, we could stipulate that all the Rawls room participants were environmentalists, but this would undermine the purpose of the Rawls room in constructing an ethical system which could be derived from purely self-interested actors. It would seem, then, that a true 'veil of ignorance' must include the stipulation that members do not know that they are human and must therefore consider the possibility that they themselves might be one of the non-human species on the planet. And this condition is perfectly consistent with naturalism, which holds that we are merely highly intelligent animals on a spectrum with all non-human species.

But what is the consequence of this modified 'veil of ignorance' for the decisions of the Rawls' room? These are now extremely unclear. I could easily imagine quite a few outcomes, none of which reflect well on humans. Other than humans, is there any species on the planet who are likely to render the planet uninhabitable for all life? Is there any other species which seem so singularly prone to misery and self-destruction? Compared to humans, many of whom are living in abject poverty and terror, most animals in the wild seem quite happy. Many animal species like cockroaches are far better adapted to survival, having existed for hundreds of millions of years. Even plant life at least has the attraction of being self-sustaining and unable to experience pain. As a result, I would be hard-pressed to see why the Rawls-room participants would choose to create a biosphere in which humans were permitted to even exist, let alone dominate and oppress the other species. It is only because we bias the Rawls room in favor of humans from the very beginning that we 'objectively' conclude that human welfare ought to take precedence over animal or plant welfare.

We might object that some level of intelligence is needed as a prerequisite for admittance into the Rawls room. After all, a rock cannot vote on the perfect society, so it must be excluded for practical reasons. The difficulty is that the same prerequisite would exclude large numbers of humans: those who are mentally disabled, those suffering dementia, the very young. So if we require some kind of minimal intelligence, we are left with the possibility that our Rawls room members might create a society in which toddlers were harvested for their organs or the mentally disabled are euthanized. It is only if the veil of ignorance makes no provision for intelligence (and therefore, no provision for human exceptionalism) that we restore true objectivity to the Rawls room.

And this observation is the main point of the thought experiment. If naturalism is true, we are nothing more than unusually intelligent animals. If so, what is it that makes humans 'special' such that we have more value than any other animals? Is it our intelligence? Our ability to create poetry? Our ability to do math? Our ability to understand natural selection (as Dawkins suggests)? I would maintain that these factors are all transparent examples of species-ism. A gorilla ethicist might equally argue that on the basis of their superior strength and agility, they have more value than humans. It is only by 'loading the dice' in favor of characteristically human traits that we find 'value' in what humans do and not in what gorillas or cockroaches or sunflowers do. But if naturalism is true, there is no intrinsic value in any of these traits. They are all reducible to the collective properties of atoms and molecules in motion and intelligence is no more 'valuable' than size or weight. Although I have constructed my argument around a Rawls room,which is usually associated with contractarianism, the same objection would apply to other naturalistic theories of ethics like utilitarianism. If naturalism is true, then what exactly provides an objective, unbiased basis for the value of humans over and against gorillas or dolphins or sunflowers?

The second argument I'd like to make is related to Searle's Chinese Room scenario, which was originally applied in the context of artificial intelligence. Searle envisioned a room full of English-speaking people who are all assigned various tasks. Every few minutes, a letter is passed through a slot in the door. The letter is covered with symbols that the workers do not understand. But each worker has a specific task based on which symbols are written on the letter. For instance, one symbol might tell the first worker to take a book from shelf 10A and move it to location 17. Another symbol might tell the second worker to open the book and copy the seventh symbol on page 213 onto a fresh sheet of paper, etc... By following their specific instructions, the workers end up copying several unknown symbols onto a letter and passing it back out through the slot in the door.

Now what Searle asks us to imagine is that all of the workers inside the room are given instructions which, if they are followed correctly, allow them to receive letters written in fluent Chinese and return answers likewise written in fluent Chinese. This is more or less what any system of artificial intelligence would do; it would follow a list of programmed instructions for taking some particular input and producing some corresponding output. Searle's question was: "Does the room itself know Chinese, since none of the people inside know Chinese and have no idea what they are doing?" Although the answer seems to obviously be 'No", this particular question doesn't concern us.

Let's instead consider a variation on Searle's Chinese room. Imagine a much larger room inhabited by millions of people. Every day, millions of letters stream in from hundreds of mail slots and millions stream back out. The workers are loving and compassionate, doing their work with diligence and joy. This continues for years. However, this room serves a different function than the Chinese Room. The room is actually housed within a giant robot which is engaged in torturing a similar robot. The incoming letters correspond to messages from the robots visual and auditory systems and the outgoing letters control the robot's motion. The first robot continues to torture the second for years on end, unmoved by the screams and petitions of the second. My question is: "Is the robot itself evil, since none of the people inside have any idea what they are doing?" The answer seems clearly to be "No." Both robots are simply automatons. They have no emotions, they have no mental experiences. The fact that the first robot is 'torturing' the second has no more moral significance than the fact that a river is eroding a riverbank or that a lightning bolt is incinerating a tree.

But this answer becomes problematic when we realize that, if naturalism is true, then each of us is nothing more than a Searle robot. If naturalism is true, then I am reducible to the sum of the physical processes taking place in my body. In theory, I could model every one of these processes inside the robot. Every neuron, every blood vessel, every tendon -if needed every atom- would be represented within the robot. So the question for the naturalist is: "If every single physical fact about my mind and body is represented by some physical process within the robot, then why do categories like 'good' and 'evil' apply to me and not to the robot?" This is the second challenge to the idea that naturalism can provide a valid basis for the existence of objective moral facts. If naturalism is true, then the physical world is all that exists so that all facts are reducible to physical facts. If so, then how can moral facts apply to human beings but not, for instance, to a robot which simulates every physical process inside a human being? Why would moral categories be applicable to complex physical processses when these processes occur inside humans but not when they occur inside a robot or a tornado or a baterium?

In my opinion, both of these thought experiments show that naturalism cannot furnish a viable basis for the existence of objective moral values. If naturalism is true, then there is no such things as objective 'good' and 'evil'. A consistent naturalist must deny that things like rape, torture, murder, hatred, and injustice are in any sense objectively wrong. They may be our personal preferences. They may be values that we legislate as a society. But they have no objective basis that is independent of human belief. The statement 'Murder is wrong' is not qualitatively different than the statement 'I like ketchup' or 'In the United States, we have decided that ketchup is the best condiment.' A person who has a personal preference for raping others is doing nothing objectively wrong. But does anyone actually believe that? Does anyone actually live consistently with that professed belief? No, and thank God we do not. Thank God he prevents us from living lives consistent with our worldview.

Yet one of my goals in this essay is to force naturalists to consider the logical implications their worldview. If either of the two thought experiments presented in this paper are valid, then naturalism is not compatible with the existence of objective moral values. The choices for naturalists are then limited. A naturalist can hold beliefs that he knows are inconsistent with his worldview. He can continue to believe that 'rape is objectively wrong' while knowing that this statement is incompatible with his other beliefs. Another alternative is to abandon the idea that objective moral values exist such that statements like 'rape is objectively wrong' are false. For those considering this position, I recommend my essay "Do objective moral values exist?" which makes a case for the existence of objective moral values as the best explanation of five empirical observations. I would also recommend that moral relativists ask themselves seriously whether they actually believe the statement that 'rape is not objectively wrong' and whether they ever foresee themselves living consistently with this belief. But a final option is that the naturalist could simply reconsider the plausibility of naturalism. If we hold a belief (naturalism is true) which leads to a conclusion which we know to be false ('rape is not objectively wrong'), why not reexamine that belief?

Sadly, there is an answer to this final question which does not reflect well on our intellectual consistency as humans. Deep down, we do not like the idea of an objective moral standard and we do not like the idea of a God who upholds it. This reluctance is not simply found in irreligious people, but in all people. We do not like the idea of an uncompromising, holy, and just God because we know that we are all moral failures. None of us are perfectly moral people; all of us have fallen short. Irreligious people usually hide from God's moral law by either denying that it exists or by grounding it in something other than a God of uncompromising moral nature. But religious people hide from God's moral law by creating standards of morality that are far less demanding than God's. We condemn those sins to which we are least subject and tolerate the sins that we commit, so that we can retain the illusion of our own righteousness. But it is an illusion. What is the solution to our problem? As I said at the beginning of the essay, Christianity offers a perspective that is wholly unique among world religions. God does not accept us as a reward for keeping His moral law. Instead, he rescues us from the just punishment we deserve for breaking his moral law. Christianity alone, amongst all world religions, offers rescue for moral failures. I hope that both religious and irreligious people who read this essay will be moved to consider whether the salvation offered by Christianity is true and whether it is the salvation we all desperately need.


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If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.

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