The Falling of The Heavens

A few months ago, in an article opposing gay marriage, Cal Thomas made the following observation:

Let's put it this way. If you tell me you do not believe in God and then say to me that I should brake for animals, or pay women equally, or help the poor, on what basis are you making such an appeal? If no standard for objective truth, law, wisdom, justice, charity, kindness, compassion and fidelity exists in the universe, then what you are asking me to accept is an idea that has taken hold in your head but that has all of the moral compulsion of a bowl of cereal. You are a sentimentalist, trying to persuade me to a point of view based on your feelings about the subject and not rooted in the fear of God or some other unchanging earthly standard.

Thomas is right: without an objective, unchanging standard--perhaps God, perhaps something else--there is no way to ground morality. We are left only with our moral sentiments. And so, the argument goes, you better believe in God if you want an objective basis for telling others to brake for animals, pay women equally, or help the poor. And since we like people who brake for animals, pay women equally, and help the poor, and frown upon those who don't do these things, we have a very good reason to believe in God.

Or do we? As I wrote a few months ago in response to Thomas,

Even if there is no way to ground morality without first positing the existence of God, this is not a good argument for God's existence. Just because we find something convenient and comforting doesn't make it true.

Besides being unconvicing on epistemological grounds, I'm not so sure it's even convenient or comforting anymore. Is it convenient to have lots of people running around who unwaveringly believe that God frowns upon this and praises that, when no two people have the same view of what God wants from us? How are we supposed to resolve these conflicts? Is it comforting to know that the only reason your neighbor doesn't rape, burglarize or kill you is because he fears even worse consequences in the afterlife? Wouldn't you rather have a neighbor who is civil because he has empathy for his fellow man, and for no other reason?

If this argument fails when it is offered as a reason to believe in God,--and I believe it does fail--then it also fails when is is offered in support of the objectivity of natural rights.

Will Wilkinson makes the connection:

It seems that I'm constantly getting into arguments--arguments that don't even interest me that much--about whether moral behavior is even possible if people don't believe in God, or Aristotelian natural ends, or natural rights, or whatever. It's boring because, well, it's just plain as an Amish girl that you don't need to believe in anything special to do the right thing. Nevertheless, I often hear arguments that go something like this:

"If people don't believe in God, then we won't be afraid to do terrible things, and won't have any motivation to do good things, and then there'll just be CHAOS, which would be horrifying."

To which I usually sit with a stunned and expectant look on my face. Because the next step seems perfectly obvious to me. If chaos is so terrible, isn't that reason enough for people to, you know, avoid it. No one much wants to step over corpses on the way to Starbucks, or hose the blood off the sidewalks each morning. We'll all be much better off if we constrain ourselves in certain ways, and if we exert a little extra effort in certain cases.

So isn't this all we need to believe: that being good is a net winner over baby-raping anarchy? God, natural rights, or whatever, don't seem to get you anything extra. The horribleness of immorality does a pretty good job of making morality look pretty good without any special help. So why all the insistence on overdetermination? Insurance?

Randy Barnett, in his new paper, The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism, mentions the insurance angle and suggests one additional use for natural rights:

Abstract natural rights are like a "cheat sheet" for a multiple choice exam. They can often distinguish right action from wrong, but they do not provide all the reasons why some actions should be thought right and others wrong, and therefore they are often unpersuasive unless bolstered by more explicitly consequentialist analysis. Nonetheless, such a cheat sheet can obviate the need for costly and potentially tragic "social experiments" that may be recommended by faulty consequentialist analyses. Even when such experiments are destructive, there is often no efficient way to terminate them. Perhaps more than others, libertarians contend that it is far better to use an abstract natural rights analysis to look before one leaps. But if seriously adverse consequences were ever shown to result from adhering to the outcomes recommended by a natural rights analysis, that analysis would have to be reexamined and perhaps revised.

Natural rights, which Barnett describes as "nothing more than concepts or constructs", may serve a useful purpose as probabilistic shortcuts to correct consequentialist answers. As time passes and people face the same social problems over again and over again, they begin to recognize patterns. These patterns, in turn, evolve into the conceptual framework to which we give the honorific "rights" - enshrined in and enforced by social custom and written law.

But these tools pervert their proper role when they are viewed as ends and not means. As Barnett notes,

Moral rights analysis becomes unappealing when it advocates the protection of moral rights "though heavens may fall." Most people care about the domain of discretionary actions that rights protect, but also would care about the falling of the heavens.

The purpose of both moral rights analysis and consequentialist analysis is to solve the fundamental social problem: "Given that the actions of each person in society are likely to have effects on others, on what conditions is it possible for persons to live and pursue happiness in society with other persons?" When strict adherence to natural rights interferes with these conditions, so much the worse for natural rights.

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...so of course you won't

...so of course you won't respect them.

Not even at gunpoint?

[...] hical egoism commonly

[...] hical egoism commonly make them. First, he makes the assertion that rights violations are psychologically costly to the Prudent Predator. Kamala [...]

Let’s define nonsense as a

Let’s define nonsense as a person holding two beliefs that contradict each other. If someone believes both A and not A at the same time. It is not a tautology to say that someone shouldn’t hold contradictory views, because there is nothing within the definition of nonsense which even implies whether a person should accept or reject it.

Correct. I was under the false impression that JTK's question was about someone who considers their own views nonsense. But I agree; logical contradictions do not entail within their definition the normative claim that they should be rejected. As I mentioned in the other thread, one should reject contradictions if one's goal is to acquire true knowledge about the world. However, if one has other goals which one considers more pressing than knowledge acquisition, this moral imperative does not apply.

I already said none of this

I already said none of this was a valid argument for objective morality, but isn't Willkinson wrong when he says that all we need to produce good behavior is the belief that being good is a net winner over baby-raping chaos?

As I understand Will's argument, he is arguing within the context where the "believe in God, else chaos" argument would apply. Within that context, we are assuming that structural incentives (law, social norms, whatever) are not strong enough to stop people from acting immorally, and thus we need something else. This "something else" is God; since we don't like chaos, we better believe in God. But Will's point is that we don't need to make that additional step. If we don't like chaos, we don't like chaos, and we should act in accordance with that view. Their is no need to posit God to achieve that purpose.

Of course, Will is not claiming that individual action in accordance with morality is a sufficient for prerequisite for civil society. We still need laws, social norms, structural incentives, etc.

If you don’t believe in

If you don’t believe in objective morality you don’t believe in rights, so of course you won’t respect them.

As Mark already pointed out, you surely will respect them if they are backed by the barrel of a gun. That is the purpose of law.

I'll give it another

I'll give it another try:

fact one: Man acts
fact two: Man has goals (if he didn't, he wouldn't act)
fact three: There are things in the world that gets in the way of a person fulfilling his goals
fact four: It is possible for a person to have goals that go unfulfilled.
fact five: having goals that are unfulfilled makes man unhappy.
fact six: man wants to be happy

which brings us to our objective rule: man should try to reduce the things which get in the way of fulfilling his goals. Or he should abandon his goals.

Yes, Mongoose, I agree. That

Yes, Mongoose, I agree. That is about as close as you can get to what I would assume most people here consider an "objective" or "indispensable" ought. It is, of course, the structure of all hypothetical imperatives. It is the only way to bridge the is/ought gap, if one makes the distinction between fact and value and if one recognizes that values are subjective and do not exist outside our subjectively chosen prefrences.