living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Do necessary non-trivial ethical facts require an explanation?

with 18 comments

Erik Wielenberg wants to claim that, contrary to intuition, some necessary non-trivial ethical facts require no explanation (e.g., it is morally wrong to torture innocents for fun). To legitimate this claim, he reminds his opposition of their own claim that God’s existence is necessary, non-trivial and requires no explanation. I’m tempted to think they are both wrong. Let me explain why.

“For what it is worth,” Wielenberg says “the ethical claim that pain is intrinsically bad”, which he apparently sees as both necessary and non-trivial, “seems to me not to cry out for further explanation; indeed, I find it less in need of explanation than the existence of a perfect person who created the universe.” (In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism, 26) Perhaps, but this seems carefully worded. First of all, pace Wielenberg, it is not at all obvious that pain’s intrinsic badness is an ethical or moral* fact, and ethical facts are the sort we are trying to discuss here. It is an unambiguously evaluative fact, certainly, but why think it has a moral dimension in and of itself? No necessary or sufficient conditions have been offered for what amounts to a moral fact, so allow me to offer one necessary condition: Necessarily, a characteristically moral fact is one where the interests of more than one person are involved. Pain being intrinsically bad, then, does not rise to this level. Wielenberg gives us another example, however, that does fit this criterion, so let us proceed using that example. Namely, “…the state of affairs in which it is morally wrong to torture the innocent just for fun….” (Ibid.) Good enough.

Now let’s look at the second half of this comparison, i.e., Wielenberg’s incredulity with the claim that a perfect person who created the universe requires no explanation. I actually quite agree with him on this point, so I don’t mean to fault him, and he did make it explicit that this was the form of theism he intended to examine. However, there are other theistic options which are more durable to the sort of criticism implicit in his dismissal, namely the tradition that goes back at least to Thomas Aquinas in which God is not a being alongside other beings. In modern times Paul Tillich was the most famous modern proponent of this form of theism. The important feature of this theology for our purposes is that for Tillich, God is not a creator being derived from the analysis of contingent being. He sees the cosmological argument as an argument to be invalid. Instead,

“[t]he first cause is a hypostatized question, not a statement about a being which initiates the causal chain. Such a being would itself be a part of the causal chain and would again raise the question of cause.… When used as material for ‘arguments,’…categories lose their categorical character. First cause and necessary substance are symbols which express the question implied in finite being, the question of that which transcends finitude and categories, the question of being-itself…, the question of God” (Systematic Theology V. 1, p. 209).

Thus, we can strengthen Wielenberg’s initial musing, agree with it, yet offer a reformulation exploring the same basic point, but which concludes differently. Here it is: “For what it is worth, the ethical claim that it is wrong to torture innocents just for fun seems to not to cry out for further explanation; indeed, we may find it less in need of explanation than an eternal reality that answers the question of contingency and finitude.” This comparison, it seems to me, no longer works. If we are being moral realists here (and we are), then the former seems to cry out explanation much more so than the latter, for the latter reality, by definition, is beyond our categories of causality, temporarily, etc. (the things that allow our questions to work at all). Continuing to ask the question in this case actually demonstrates that one has not understood the nature of the answer given, but we can still ask, with no confusion, what makes it true that torturing innocents is morally wrong. Wielenberg himself answers elsewhere shrewdly, “…my answer is that it is the same sort of thing that makes other necessary truths true – namely, the essential nature of the entities that those claims are about” (Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe, 51). Leaving to one side what this essential nature consists in, it might be noticed that, at least here, Wielenberg is engaged in the very thing he was above trying to avoid; namely, offering further explanation for the truth of non-trivial necessary ethical facts. Perhaps there’s more explanation needed than what Wielenberg initially suggested?

*Wielenberg intends to use these two terms interchangeably.


Written by Alex

October 14, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Posted in moral philosophy

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18 Responses

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  1. Yea, that’s fine, but two things that are not central to your argument, and then one thing that is

    1. “Necessarily, a characteristically moral fact is one where the interests of more than one person are involved.” is an odd thing to say if you’re only going to say one thing about moral facts. Why not…”moral facts are prescriptive facts” or some such thing? It’s not obvious to me that moral facts require more than one person; in fact, I believe it’s just false. “We ought not rape the earth” seems to only involve one person.

    2. You confuse ontology with epistemology. God may not be an object beside other objects, but unless you are going to defend a robust isolationist epistemology of religious entities, our beliefs about God are going to be inferential (e.g., from the existence of the Universe) or basic (cf. Plantinga).

    3. What’s stopping Wielenberg from defining moral facts into brute facts, analogous to your defining God into necessary being (or whatever).

    Jonathan Jong

    October 14, 2010 at 6:02 pm

  2. 1. This is a good point. This bit about appealing to the interests of others is pulled from another theory by Peter Railton. I stripped out the verbiage that hailed back to that theory for this post (this post is really just an excerpt from thesis work). I can see how losing all that context might be confusing. I’ll revisit that.

    However, I’m not convinced that the assertion that “We ought not rape the earth” makes any sense as a norm of merely individual intent. Whence “ought?”

    Thoughts on 2-3 to come.


    October 14, 2010 at 7:14 pm

  3. “Whence ought?” is a meta-ethical question. Do we need meta-ethics before we can identify ethical sentences/propositions? Your account of what an ethical sentence consists in is too theory-laden.

    Jonathan Jong

    October 14, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    • I understand your proposition intends to be ethical. That’s not the point. The point is that your attempt assumes a meta-ethic I can’t make sense of, and so, to my mind, fails in its attempt. If the universe contained only one person (no super-personal ground either, if we can even say that), then I don’t see how talk of a moral ought has any sense to it. It would certainly be of a sense I have never encountered. Oughts make sense relative to persons (divine or otherwise).


      October 14, 2010 at 9:08 pm

      • Funny, that’s exactly my accusation of you: Your definition a priori settles meta-ethical questions.

        Jonathan Jong

        October 15, 2010 at 12:17 pm

      • My point was: The “whence ought” question does not have to be answered at this point, while we’re just identifying which propositions count as moral. My answer, “Those that have oughts in them”. It’s minimalist, as far as I can tell, and pretty theory-neutral. Yours comes with this baggage about persons. It MIGHT exclude behaviours that some of us want to call moral.

        Jonathan Jong

        October 15, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    • ic. Then your assertion is too minimalist. You’re going to need to laden it with a bit more theory, for on your account “You really ought to use 2×6’s rather than 2×4’s” qualifies as a moral proposition.


      October 15, 2010 at 12:35 pm

      • Touché. In my head, the problematic distinction was between “moral” and “conventional”. How do we, in my scheme, distinguish between “We ought not murder” and “We ought not put our elbows on the table?”, but this is much better. So, my definition is crap. Here’s another:

        1. A moral proposition is a propositions which applies “moral predicates” to psychological and behavioural states of affairs and/or persons.
        2. A moral predicate is just one that takes the form “morally wrong” or “morally right” and its semantic equivalents.

        Is this still too thin? Can I leave what “moral wrongness” etc. consists in? Or do we really need a robust meta-ethic for this? That seems to put the cart before the horse, but perhaps that’s necessary?

        Jonathan Jong

        October 15, 2010 at 12:49 pm

  4. 2. Do I? Every epistemology has an implicit ontology. If we affirm that God is not a being alongside other beings, but being itself/ground of being, then this has epistemological consequences. I’m inclined to think Tillich is right in the way he expresses this point. To rely on inferential modes to arrive at God brings one to a fundamental problem: God’s transcendence prohibits final contact (Aquinas fills in this gap with a bit of faith). Plantinga (though I don’t claim to affirm the details of his theory), is aiming in a direction that Tillich associates with Augustine (c.f. The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion). This sort is what he calls the “ontological type” wherein knowledge of God is not something strange to us, but is in effect the very ground from which we start. To ask the question of God, he says, is to at least partially already have the answer. Without a partial answer, the question could not even be asked. The ontology here is not one of God “out there” towards whom we reason, but rather a stress on God’s immanence in self and world, the very foundation of reason itself.

    3. to come.


    October 14, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    • I believe that the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a Being Infinitely Delicious and Sloppifying is the ground of all being, from which I begin my philosophy of religion. Piffle.

      But fine, if you want a separate epistemology, make one. I’ll sit here and watch. Maybe you could defend Wittgensteinian fideism. Or Reformed Epistemology. Or a Bartleyan retreat into commitment. Don’t be lazy and do all this fancy theology until you present a method and an epistemology more generally.

      Theologians. Bah, humbug.

      Jonathan Jong

      October 15, 2010 at 12:20 pm

  5. I would say that any mode of inquiry into a system (be it ontological, epistemic, semantic, etc) relies on some form of inference to the best explanation. God’s “transcendence” (however you might understand this) does not remove him from the rest of the cosmos as “knowable” because all contact with other systems require elements of belief (Puntel’s knowledge: One believes that they are justified in their belief). Thus, we don’t have faith giving us an extra push to knowledge just for God but for everything. Not to say that there isn’t something of the human condition that urges toward the absolute, but I think that “Being” is closer to an ingrained conception of an “ultimate (concern)” than the idea of theism’s God (i.e. – fully explicated Being).

    As to Plantinga, his sensus divinitatis is problematic when considering that even it can be prevented from basic function by original sin, which proves troubling when trying to provide external justification. How does one utilize one’s proper function with the ambiguities of sin’s effects running rampant? To me, it seems that instead of having access to an innate knowledge of God we are pushed back to proving that such a knowledge is properly basic to us…and is this not inference to the best explanation by a dutch reformed? Making room for God in our ontology is thus modified to a quest for making knowledge of God a part of our ontology, hence indirectly proving God.


    October 15, 2010 at 8:21 am

    • Hm. I’m not sure I’m following why “any mode of inquiry into a system” “relies” on some form of IBE. It’s the bits in scare quotes that might be the trouble. What you’re not saying, I take it, is that all beliefs are properly justified by IBEs. There are, after all, warranted beliefs that are conclusions of deductively valid arguments whose premises are logical truths… I think. Are there?

      Jonathan Jong

      October 15, 2010 at 12:35 pm

      • I would not say that justification could be claimed by IBE exclusively, but that inquiry naturally involves its use. Even taking something that is apparently extremely stable, like peano axioms, assumes the integration and coherence of the system in which it is located (that of natural number theory). So complaining about 2 plus 2 equaling 4 is pointless as, is usually the case when trying to prove something like this (foundationally at least), the interlocutors both assume natural number theory. Likewise, it is useless to argue a question like “Does c follow b?” when the alphabet system is assumed by those in such a dialogue. To argue it is not is to really argue about the system itself. What could be considered an adequate argument would be whether a straight line or a geodesic better map the surface of the earth. At this point, there is an intersystematic problem with which to accept or abandon a framework for the given problem.

        Like the previous examples, deductive validity or soundness is often based on first-order logic. To argue that a syllogism, for example, works or doesn’t work is to argue within the FOL system. Now, this is certainly not to say that abdication of basic logic follows but that within inquiry or question-asking there is an implied or explicit sizing-up of a system with how it bears with reality. Thus far, I have seen no reason to renounce the veracity of normal number theory axioms or formal proofs because the systems in which they operate are entirely consonant with any system that I experience or can think about. However, this is not to say they are certain either. I remain open to their emendation, but I feel highly justified in accepting them in their current forms. Perhaps, in years to come, science finds that it is indeed justifiable to contend that future events shape the present or that causality can work backwards in time. Presently, such a way of thinking has no previous instance for me in any system I have encountered (at least, that wasn’t entirely fictitious); however, I remain open to the possibility as with anything else.

        So, IBE naturally follows in any theoretical exercise because there is a need to evaluate systems in their correspondence to reality regardless of their internal consistency. I can’t just say that because something is deductively valid it is the case.


        October 15, 2010 at 2:00 pm

  6. Separately from the rest of this scintillating conversation: ethical facts? Seems to me to be an odd combination of words. Ethics seems to be as subjective as anything. I’m not sure we can say it is factual that kicking puppies is wrong, though I would suppose that a significant majority of people would agree (and that if anyone kicked my puppy, there would be severe consequences and repercussions.) A consensus does not a fact make, it remains an overwhelming opinion and given a different audience sampling, may come out with different results.

    All ethical propositions, to me, must have some grounding in justification beyond mere democratic consensus. And while I would agree that we ought to assume the coherence of systems in which we operate rather than keep the line on hold while we dither (and cop out) in the name of constructing proper foundational criteria, that still does not leave us with a fact that is in any way necessary or exempt from rationalization. We should infer to the best explanation while seeking to maintain the coherence of relationality with that which is. I guess that’s not necessarily insightful, though, either.


    October 15, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    • K: “Kicking puppies is wrong” is either:
      (a) True
      (b) False
      (c) Neither true nor false

      Saying that there is no face about the matter about K is tantamount to saying that K is (c). K is not a proposition. Perhaps it’s an imperative (viz., “Don’t kick puppies!”) or emotive expressions (e.g., “Ew! Kicking puppies! Yuck!). If so, it is a little odd to talk about _justifying_ K without ultimately resorting to fact talk. Consider: K (an imperative or emotional experience) is appropriate because…what? because “Kicking puppies is wrong” is true? If not?

      So, I suspect, Brent, that you’re committed to saying that K is (a). But that is to admit that there is a fact about the matter.

      Jonathan Jong

      October 18, 2010 at 12:28 pm

      • One cannot know if kicking puppies is wrong precisely for the reason that we may be able to justify it, but never know if it is necessarily true. Ethics is not epistemology, ethics to me would be secondary to it; that is, how to relate to the known and knowable world and articulate compellingly precisely why. Ethics are opinions to epistemology’s facts.

        The act of kicking and the subject of a puppy are true, knowable facts, but to say that another subject (you, for example) should not engage in said act against the other said subject is not and cannot be definitively knowable. That’s like saying you can know what you would like to have for lunch on April 19, 2017: you might know what options are available, you might not, and you might not even be alive at that point.

        Do you know that you shouldn’t kick puppies? Or do you believe it is wrong? How does one begin to go about bridging that–I argue unconnectable–gap?


        October 18, 2010 at 8:40 pm

  7. Rory,

    All this is true, of course. Perhaps all our logical axioms (e.g., “not p and not-p”) are false. But we have no reason to believe they are at the moment. And so we ougn’t. Or we could, but we’d no longer be playing the same game as every else. We’d have an isolationist epistemology. To use Christian language, we’d be gnostics.

    Jonathan Jong

    October 18, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    • I think we are on the same page then, Jonathan. I have no reason to doubt much that common sense, rationality and experience have handed down to me. Yet, they will never be theoretically certain (again, in the sense of foundational certainty or something I could prove to you beyond doubt and, likewise, I myself could hold incorrigibly). Belief/faith permeates all theory. I have my own (well, adopted and modified) taxonomic structure of justification (currently in a four step scheme) in which I try and determine my level of confidence in areas of supposed knowledge. Some of those things I can claim near-foundational certainty and others I cannot even claim knowledge because I don’t even believe I am justified in holding to them. It’s a spectrum. And, as such, I will act appropriately upon their place in that schema.

      I imagine this is all preaching to the choir…?


      October 18, 2010 at 4:42 pm

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