An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 4.2

The implications of moral intuition


Rauser's moral argument is strongly dependent on the notion that we can intuitively access purely objective moral truths, just as we can intuitively access our sensory perception. He says, "I can just see that 2+2=4 and that the sky is blue, and I can just see that particular actions are morally good and praiseworthy and others are morally evil and condemnable." When Schieber challenges Rauser on how this hypothesis can be squared with what Richard Dawkins referred to in The God Delusion as the "shifting moral zeitgeist"—changing cultural attitudes toward the moral context of various actions—Rauser suggests that our moral intuitions can be mistaken, just as our sensory perception can be mistaken.

However, I think Rauser overlooks several relevant differences between moral and sensory intuitions (as an aside, I'd argue that mathematics are not intuitive at all, but that's a rabbit trail for a later chapter). We have developed a rigorous method to help us discern accurate sensory data from inaccurate sensory data: science. Our sensory perception can be shown in many cases to be objectively mistaken through a process of empirical inquiry. However, not only does no such methodology for discerning the accuracy of moral intuitions appear to exist, it seems that one has never so much as been coherently conceptualized. Rauser insists on several occasions that he "knows" certain acts are "evil", but he doesn't tell us how his presumption of knowledge could be either substantiated or undermined.

All Rauser should need to do however, is imagine himself living in, say, colonial America. He might intuitively defend slavery with the same conviction he'd likely condemn it with today. But how could colonial Rauser test his presumptions and come to the correct intuition? Would 31st century Rauser, with his bionic limbs and laser-cannon eyeballs, hold any other moral intuitions in such profound contrast? Tellingly, Rauser doesn't offer a means by which we could gain insight into such matters.

Schieber attempts to illuminate Rauser's dilemma by suggesting he imagine himself in Abraham's shoes, perceiving God as commanding child sacrifice. Rauser suggests that in modern times, he'd think himself mentally ill. But he avoids directly responding to Schieber's hypothetical. Was Abraham right to intuit God as justifiably commanding such an unspeakable act? Rauser believes his current theological presumptions prevent him from entertaining such a horrible act. But could he not be subject to a profound calling, a voice or vision he deemed too real to chalk up to hallucination, that challenges his theological presumptions and moral intuitions? Rather than erecting a defense here, Rauser deflects by suggesting that this is a similar problem on Schieber's view.

And when he does, I feel Schieber concedes too much. He concedes that "If I were to fall under the radical delusion of thinking that the desire to rape or torture are the kinds of desires that, when introduced our increased, tend to fulfill desires rather than thwart them, and that therefore rape or torture could, in certain circumstances, become obligatory, I'd also seek help from a mental health professional." I think that in conceding this, Schieber lends too much credence to the notion that acts are intrinsically right or wrong. As we've seen, our moral judgments—even regarding heinous acts— are necessarily contextual, precisely because moral questions deal with the interests of cooperative, interdependent conscious creatures co-existing in a social hierarchy. Acts with intrinsic moral value do not exist.

Moral skepticism


Rauser wraps up the chapter by echoing Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism (EAAN). Essentially, Plantinga claimed that since evolution is directed toward survival, and not necessarily truth, naturalism fails to provide us a reason to trust our cognitive faculties. He challenges Schieber thus: "what is your basis for thinking that you track moral facts successfully, that they yield genuine moral knowledge?"

At this point, the conversation begins to feel like—to borrow an analogy from Tim Minchin—two tennis players try to score perfectly executed shots from opposite ends of separate tennis courts. The authors never came to an agreement on what moral facts are, much less how we attain knowledge of them. While he never committed himself as such, Schieber presented a view of moral ontology that comports more with utilitarianism or consequentialism, in which moral values and obligations are those which objectively further or hinder the well-being of self-interested, interdependent, unequal conscious beings. Rauser, conversely, believes that moral truths exist like scientific truths—independently not only of our ability to discern them, but indeed independently of our very existence. And while Schieber believes we can assess the moral value of a proposition by exploring how the desires that motivate them reflect values we as a obligatorily gregarious society ought to promote or condemn, Rauser believes that we can assess the moral value of a proposition purely through intuition. 

This chasm between our interlocutors only grows as the topic broadens. Since Randal is committed to the belief that moral truths are purely objective, he finds a moral analog of Plantinga's EAAN persuasive. Schieber's moral ontology is completely different, and it's a safe bet he rejects Plantinga's EAAN, so he appears to view this part of the discussion as a red herring. Regrettably, Schieber allows himself to be drawn into a weak defense of naturalism, suggesting that it's likely that evolution directs us toward true propositions rather than false ones.

I find Plantinga's argument profoundly unpersuasive, simply because it's irrelevant. We have well-developed empirical methodologies of testing our beliefs about the world, of looking for repeatable patterns, of identifying cognitive errors and biases. The only alternative to assuming our cognitive faculties are at least generally reliable—and I really do see this as a true dichotomy—is radical skepticism, which entails that no knowledge is even possible. Furthermore, we've already seen that Rauser defends a version of theism in which God's ultimate motivations are hidden from us, even to the point that he feels God could have justifiable reasons for misleading people (whether by commission or omission) about religious truth; on this view, it's plausible that God could have morally sufficient reasons for deceiving us about any matters of our perception of reality—including moral truth. Rauser unwittingly provides an undercutting defeater to his own moral ontology.

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — review index
Part 3
Part 4.1  

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