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God and “The” Good: An Essay On Morality, Part IV

January 16, 2012

The Argument from Relativity

Following the lead of Mackie, the first obvious objection to the existence of objective values is one that is certainly in vogue currently—mainly the argument from relativity.  The argument goes something like this:  we now know that there are many different cultures in the world, and each culture has a different set of values, including moral ones.  Depending on which culture you were born into makes the difference into set of values you embrace.  Therefore, if moral values are supposed to be objective and a fact that can be discovered or known, how is it that so many people who a part of so many different cultures come to such different conclusions about they values they uphold?  Is it not rather the case, as Mackie suggests, that “the actual variations in the moral codes are more readily explained by the hypothesis that they reflect ways of life than by the hypothesis that they express perceptions, most of them seriously inadequate and badly distorted, of objective values.”[1]

Before even responding to the issue of presuppositions, it should be noted that there is a simple answer to most forms of the argument from relativity.  Yes, it must be acknowledged that cultures differ, though not nearly as widely as is often stated, as to the values that they hold, and this includes moral values.  So they may disagree as to what is right or wrong, or good or bad.  However, this assumes that there is a right or wrong to begin with!  So while cultures disagree as to what constitutes right or wrong, they all fundamentally agree that certain things are right or wrong.  This would lend strongly to the existence of a set of values that transcends any particular culture.

Yet, we must acknowledge the force of Mackie’s objection:  how have our various cultures so “badly distorted” our perceptions of the right and wrong?  Shouldn’t there be a much higher degree of conformity?  And this takes us to the issue of presuppositions.  Certainly, if naturalism is true, then there is no explanation as to how cultures have come to hold divergent moral systems.  In this view, objective morality has already been eliminated as a possibility in the first place.  The best theory as to how we come to hold moral views at all would be some sort of social contract theory that is utilitarian in nature.  And in this case, then obviously, different societies would hold to different moralities.

If we presuppose a theistic view, on the other hand, we can easily account for the divergence in moral views between cultures and uphold the commonsensical notion that there are objective values, which is bolstered by the fact that all cultures agree that there is a right and wrong (or good or bad) in the first place.  Take the Christian understanding of the fall for instance.  In the Christian worldview, moral values do not change from culture to culture or person to person, but because we have broken moral faculties, and have closed our ears and eyes to the good, we are fairly stunted in our perception of what is right or wrong, good or bad from the outset.  This, though more explanation would be needed, could validly account for the difference in moral values from culture to culture.

Further, whereas cultural relativism dissolves any notion of good and evil, right and wrong altogether, so that objectively speaking there is no difference between an Adolf Hitler and an Abraham Lincoln, a Christian worldview can account for the differences (see above) while also proposing that all cultures and peoples do agree on some basic fundamental moral principles, and that this would lend even further credence to the acceptance of objective moral values.  For example, I can think of no culture that thinks it is a morally virtuous thing to rape another man’s wife.  This would be patently condemned by all cultures.  Sure, one could appeal to utilitarian principles as a way of explaining this, but this would not undermine objective values; it would simply confirm that morality is also useful.  As societies and cultures we most certainly seem to be saying more than that raping another man’s wife is un-useful to society.  Rather, we are condemning it as morally repugnant and objectively wrong.  How the Christian worldview can explain the convergence of moral thinking from culture to culture will be explained in the next section.  For now, let it suffice to say that the argument from moral relativism poses no real threat to objective values, unless naturalism is presupposed in the first place.

The Argument from ‘Queerness’

In Mackie’s own words, this argument is as follows:

Even more important, however, and certainly more generally applicable, is the argument from queerness.  This has two parts, one metaphysical, the other epistemological.  If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.  Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.[2]

Mackie’s main objection to objective values based on this argument seems to be that to accept that objective values are apprehended by some “special faculty of moral perception” would be a “travesty” to actual moral thinking.  For our purposes here, this is really beside the point, but it will also be dealt with shortly.  Presently, we should notice just how much Mackie’s naturalistic presupposition factors into the supposed strength of this argument.

It is certainly true that if naturalism is correct, then objective values of any sort would be utterly inexplicable.  We have dealt with this already.  Because by definition they would need to exist beyond the natural universe, as purely natural creatures, we would have no way to move beyond our physical boundaries to discover them.  So from a naturalistic perspective, intuitionism is simply impossible.  Point for Mackie.

Yet, what if we presuppose a theistic worldview?  Would not the problem given by the argument from queerness vanish?  Objective values may be utterly different than the universe, but God himself is “wholly other”—to use a theological phrase—from the universe.   And while objective values disembodied from a divine being would be impossible to convey to beings such as humans, a theistic worldview of the Christian sort provides just the sort of “special faculty of moral perception” needed to perceive or apprehend moral truth in the doctrines of the Imago Dei and the idea of revelation.  First, Christian doctrine affirms that God creates humanity in the divine image, capable of receiving divine truth.  By the sheer fact of being created, we have God’s moral faculties built into us.  Second, God, being personal in nature, can reveal these objective values through the moral faculties that he’s given us.  In fact, this would go far in explaining why, though there are some disagreements across cultures about what is right or wrong, there is also a great deal of convergence on the most fundamental issues of morality (e.g., we may disagree as to whether terminating a fetus is right or wrong, but we all agree that to murder a child is unequivocally wrong).  At the same time, because our moral faculties have been damaged by rebellion, we do get morality wrong sometimes, and now we can see why God would need to reveal his objective values in the form of divine commands.

As to Mackie’s objection that to accept that objective values might be built into us and perceived by intuition is a travesty to moral thinking, I will say two things.  First, I cannot see how the plain denial of objective values is, itself, not a travesty of moral thinking.  I would argue that in the absence of objective morals—which is almost assumed these days—ethical theory has become ever more convoluted as it attempts to ground morality in the always changing fads of culture.  Second, I am not certain we need to go so far.  If morality is indeed an attempt to live the good, then it would need to be of such a nature that we could also come to it through another faculty, mainly that of reason.  I, therefore do not think intuitionism and moral thinking are mutually exclusive.  Again, intuitionism grounded in a theistic worldview simply suggests that we all have a sense of right and wrong built into us.  How we come to explicate it is open to discussion.

The Humean Psychological View

A third argument against objective values is based on the Humean understanding of the role of desires in motivating a person in action.  Hume famously showed us that it is not our beliefs that primarily motivate us to action, but our desires.  Yet, according to a theory of objective values, it should be our belief in their existence that motivates us to act.  In other words, a belief in a domain of objective facts outside of our subjective states does not square well with current understandings of psychological states, especially in regards to desires and their motivating force.

Again though, without a great deal of argumentation, the Humean view implicitly presupposes a naturalistic worldview.  For Hume, desires are a purely natural phenomenon.  Smith writes, “Desires are unlike beliefs in that they do not even purport to represent the way the world is.  They are therefore not accessible in terms of truth and falsehood.  Indeed, according to the standard picture, our desires are at bottom not subject to any rational criticism at.  The fact that we have a certain desire is…simply a fact to be acknowledged.”[3]  In other words, desires are just natural occurrences and are not, therefore, subject to rational—or moral—scrutiny.  So objective values, in this view, would be irrelevant, thus strongly arguing against their existence.

Of course, within a Christian framework, we can gladly acknowledge that desires do occur “naturally” (i.e., we do not rationally decide to desire something), but that our desires, like our moral faculties have been marred and thus do not work properly.  In this view, objective values would not be moot; rather, our desires would be flawed.  Yet, while in the Humean view, morality is reduced to preference, and the human is mechanically determined to follow his or her desires, in the Christian view, humans can resist their impulses or instincts and choose the good.  This would not happen without the Christian doctrine of grace, but even so, the Christian view does not ignore the role of desire in moral action, but neither does it reduce all moral action to desire.

In my responses to these objections, I have also made a case for objective values.  My claim has been simple:  if we accept the possibility of God’s existence, then a strong case can be made for objective values existing as well.  I would even go so far as to say that a theistic framework does better justice to the issues than does alternative explanations.  Now that the groundwork has been laid, we may proceed more quickly in laying a specifically Christian framework for ethics.


[1] Mackie, Inventing Right and Wrong, 37.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Smith, “Realism,”400.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 16, 2012 3:32

    Nice job of making the link explicit between presuppositions and consequent moral systems. I think it would’ve been really interesting to explore two other cases: theists who uphold moral relativity and atheists who uphold objective values. I doubt anyone from the latter category actually exists, but in this postmodern world, I bet there’s a few in the first category. Either way, I think anyone who follows your argument will realize that there’s not much Mackie-ans and theists can talk about in the realm of morality without acknowledging their irreconcilable presuppositions.

    BTW, I finished posting my argument about the problem of evil and open theism…Hoping you’ll comment on my last post, if only to help me understand open theism’s eschatology, which I haven’t heard much about 😉 My argument is pretty basic, so I’d like to think some more about it…

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