Objective Morality And The Hitler Problem

Every now and then I run across an article or post that offer an opinion that i personally feel is jaw droppingly stupid. One such article is a post by Richard Weikart about his work or more specifically the fall out from his studies and books. Faye Flam at http://www.philly.com attempts to take him to task, but I think she also missed the point.

I’ll use some context from both posts below but you should read both posts. Neither are very long.

The reason that I think this entire thing is jaw droppingly stupid is that Weikart is working on the false presumption that objective morality exists. Lets start with why some folk believe there is objective morality.

  • strongatheism.net takes the position that there is objective morality: First, it is important to understand that the skeptic answer can be seen as simply absurd and hypocrite. Most atheists would not accept subjectivist answers in any other area (except perhaps some nihilists), especially things like science. We rightly blame many Christians for holding Creationist positions on faith and subjective appreciation, because their position is not based on reality. But we must put the same blame on the shoulders of the subjectivist position in morality. To argue that morality is not knowledge and that therefore any belief or whim is acceptable, is not any more acceptable than saying that biology is not knowledge and that Creationist is true by default.
  • Neil Shenvi goes to some lengths to propose that objective moral values do exist and are proof of the existence of god.
  • TaylorX04 has a fun youtube video titled Why Objective Morality is a Farce (Part 1) I recommend all three of the videos in thsi series.

Anyone that ends up on the opposite side of a question from William Lane Craig is okay in my book. To be up front, I basically agree with TaylorX04. He manages to get to the point by asking at the 1:45 mark where is the evidence that objective moral values exist? That _IS_ the only argument here. Where is the evidence for objective morality?

Weikart writes:

Flam, however, tries to take a different approach. First, she seems to imply that since we don’t suppose that Galileo or Newton or Einstein should provide us with any moral guidance, neither should we expect it from Darwin. However, she (like many other Darwinists I’ve talked with) fails to make a crucial distinction here. Most scientists, including Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, did not ever claim to explain anything about morality. Einstein correctly rejected the idea that his theory of relativity had moral implications. On the other hand, Darwin devoted quite a few pages of Descent of Man to explaining the evolutionary origins of morality. Applying Darwinian insights to morality is not distorting the theory at all (as it would be for someone to draw moral implications from relativity theory). Rather, it is explicitly part and parcel of Darwin’s own theory of human evolution.

The use of ethical values in making judgments about the world around us and what actions we will take or not take do derive, at least in part, from the results of the evolutionary processes. Darwin, in his time, was not aware of the knowledge that we now have about biology, neurology, and many other bodies of knowledge which were at least partly based on his own work.We now have more information to work with. Using Darwin as the basis for criticism of current bodies of thought is often problematic.

The argument that there are objective moral values is not congruent with how we understand the world around us. We do not look at moral or ethical values in black and white terms. We see them in a wide range of variations. We rarely ever agree completely on how good or bad a thing or action is.  Examples include:

  • Lies: lie, bald-faced lie, white lie, big lie, little lie etc.
  • Person: good, very good, angelic, bad, evil etc.

It is in fact bizarre that anyone would even suggest that there are objective good and bad values. There is no other part of our lives where we make judgements about the world around us where we insist on objective values. We don’t have objective values for music, clothing, food or anything else where we use judgement about the world around us. That most of us seem to think Hitler was bad does not infer objective moral values. While you might find it objectionable, we do not require that people who like music that we do not be punished and it is incorrect in my opinion to, for example, want to punish people who do not hold the same moral values as we do. Those that believe Hitler was not wrong are not wrong to think so, though they may violate some other moral values in their actions. The point is that the differing views of moral value where Hitler or other such examples are concerned are all correct. There is no objective moral value to say what is right or wrong. To want someone to die is not the same thing as killing them. There is no need to have equal moral judgements on any given action. Was Hitler wrong? I think so, but you don’t have to agree with me. There is nothing that requires you to agree with me to be an ethical person. Is telling lies bad? Does this dress make my ass look fat? Is murder always bad? Do you eat meat? The Hitler problem imbues the argument with passion, but does not change the issue. What is true for the Hitler question is true for the ‘Is murder always wrong’ question.

Almost all  of us believe that murder is good in some situations, but not all situations. It is not objectively wrong. Narrowing the question down to whether the murderous Hitler was right or wrong does not demonstrate objective moral values. The best it can do is show that most of us agree that Hitler was not good. This is far from establishing anything like objective moral values.

Your behavior and actions will determine how I  personally view your moral value against my own moral value system, no matter what anyone else thinks of you. This is almost always true everywhere in the world, for all people.

Flam writes:

Weikart’s view that evolution’s proponents lack the moral grounds to criticize Hitler raises this question: Why should we hold evolution responsible for providing a complete moral framework? We don’t ask that of Galileo or Newton or Einstein. Weikert replies that evolution is different because various thinkers have applied it to morality.

This is a mis-step. Evolution can be applied to a great many topics. In fact evolution has some input on the question of why modern architecture is what it is today… in a 6 degrees kind of way. It is as it is because of human aesthetics, which is derived by neurological processes which were shaped in part by evolution.  In the same way, evolution has helped shape morality among humans.

The premise that there is objective moral values is simply without evidence or proof. No matter what argument is used in favor of believing this, there is no evidence. Murder is not always bad. Giving to charities is not always good. Lies are not always bad… round and round. If we can not see moral or ethical values in a clear-cut black and white manner, then it is not a valid premise. To make it a valid premise requires evidence. There is none. Just like the lack of evidence for gods, in this case absence of evidence is evidence of absence. We can look at the many groups over time claiming objective morality and failing miserably to show it.

Is there objective moral values? I have never encountered credible evidence in support of  it. I have encountered plenty of evidence which suggest there are no objective moral or ethical values. Here in the USA Christians will tell you that stoning gays to death is bad, yet their holy books says it is the moral thing to do… among other things they will tell you are bad.

The question of lesser and higher humans broached in the two linked posts is also not the issue that it is made out to be. Darwin’s ideas were misused by a lot of people and social darwinists. The argument is countered by positing that violent fundamentalists are not abusing their holy books ideas, though that is not a perfect analogy. Just look at dogs. They make friends with other dogs regardless of breed, size, color etc. Behavior drives their acceptance of one another.  Evolution has driven humans to behave in various ways to survive, or rather in the process of surviving some humans passed on certain behavior  traits.

The scientific method is not a set of moral values but is a method to discover the truth of the world around us. It neither defines nor requires objective moral values. If they existed the scientific method would find them. Likewise, if objective moral values existed critical thinking would show them to exist. That neither of these two methods have discovered credible evidence for objective moral values it is just jaw droppingly stupid to state that they do exist as a premise of any argument, unless you are presenting credible proof of the existence of objective moral values.

When we are morally good, it is because we ourselves choose those actions in accordance with our own value system. Our own version of being moral is different from other people’s version. If there were objective moral values, all religions would claim them, as would humanists and others because they would be self-evident. That many world views share some similar or common moral values does not prove there is objective moral values. The cognitive feedback called guilt occurs when we know we have not lived up to our own moral values system. We don’t all feel guilty in an objective way.  The argument for objective moral values means that Christians should feel guilty for not stoning people who work on Sundays. Do they? There is no demonstrable credible evidence for the existence of objective moral values. To assert that there are is to be jaw droppingly stupid.

  1. I didn’t even try to do this:

    “This is your 17th published post. Grand! This post has 1,717 words.”

  2. myatheistlife,
    I noticed that you mentioned my essay. I had one correction and one question. First, you write: “Neil Shenvi goes to some lengths to propose that objective moral values do exist and are proof of the existence of god.” Actually, that’s not true. I defended only the proposition that objective moral values exist (premise 2 of the moral argument). I say nothing about premise 1 of the moral argument (in the absence of God, objective moral values do not exist). It would be entirely possible to affirm my argument as a moral realist of any theological persuasion.
    Second, you ask: “Is there objective moral values? I have never encountered credible evidence in support of it?” But Sec. II of my essay was entitled “II. Evidence that objective moral values exist” and outline 5 pieces of empirical evidence. Then I ask “which of these two possibilities [moral realism or anti-realism] better explains the five points listed above?” How would you answer this question?

    • In rereading before replying I noticed a couple of mistakes I had made. They will get corrected and I will indeed answer your questions however I think that an appropriate answer is one that is far more considered than me flopping an opinion down on my blog. With that in mind, I will reply to your questions in a follow up post. Thanks for taking the time to start the conversation.

  3. A blogger who revises his posts for the sake of accuracy and thinks through his answers? You’ll never survive!
    In all seriousness, I would appreciate your input. I posted this essay a while ago and haven’t received any criticism. I would be very curious to hear how the central claim could be challenged.

  1. December 3rd, 2011
  2. September 7th, 2014

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