Scott Clifton’s Moral Philosophy

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 30, 2010 in Ethics,Video

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

BathTub August 30, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Pretty good.

I go through the ‘Good is whatever God says it is. Whatever God does is Good.” roundabout pretty frequently.

Whenever they inevitably turn to their ‘absolute morals’, I simply ask them to list them. I have so far never got them. As far as I am concerned for a Christian there is only one ‘absolute’, and that is ‘Do what God tells you to do’.

  (Quote)

Hermes August 31, 2010 at 3:33 am

Long but excellent.

  (Quote)

Adito August 31, 2010 at 3:04 pm

He did very well in showing how morality does not require transcendent truths(whatever those might be) but I don’t think he managed to show how it’s impossible for God to ground objective morality.

It’s possible for God to perform an action such as murder, for this action to be consistent with his nature, and for murder to be morally wrong for us. All that’s necessary is for Gods knowledge of the world to be so complete that any action which he takes that appears to be wrong to actually be right. Since we are human and such complete knowledge of consequences is beyond us it will always be wrong to murder someone. This does make it impossible to judge what’s right and wrong based on Gods actions but it does not stop someone from interpreting his nature(and therefor what’s moral) in some other way.

Scott’s second objection fails because he’s separating the nature of things from Gods nature when for a being like God there can be no such separation. He is the source of nature itself and therefor doesn’t have a nature like other things do. The correct response to the question of “why is Gods nature one of honesty rather than dishonesty” is “because Gods nature is the foundational truth of all reality and does not itself have an explanation.” This means that the theist is justified in saying that an objective morality can be grounded in a God while only a less “all-powerful” morality can be used by atheists.

  (Quote)

Hermes August 31, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Adito, while I agree Scott did not provide a philosophically complete argument, appealing to a means to justify an end rarely works with humans, it doesn’t work at all for a deity that is supposedly all good and all powerful.

The only out for a deity is for it to be not completely good and/or not completely powerful.

Yet, Scott is not arguing about what a deity does or does not do. He’s talking about what people who follow a supposed deity are claiming and what their religious text explicitly endorses. This would be true regardless of the actual existence of any deity — the specific one they reference or some other deity or set of deities.

I think the citations Scott provides are reasonable evidence that what is said to be followed is not a moral guide since the actions and reasons of the Christians themselves belie any claims to them actually following the lead of the deity of Christianity. (Well, except for the crazy ones that most Christians and non-Christians would shun or attempt to put in jail for their rationally immoral actions.)

  (Quote)

Adito August 31, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Hermes, you said “The only out for a deity is for it to be not completely good and/or not completely powerful.”

That is only true if Plantingas free will defense for the existence of evil fails and I’m not sure that it has. It could be argued that the free choices of human agents lead to such a state of affairs that the morally correct course of action for God was to kill someone. That this goes against our intuitions means nothing.

Unless I completely missed his point, Scott is saying that the Christian God can not ground morality. He’s not only saying that they can not ground it on scripture but that the whole concept just completely fails. This is what I’m disagreeing with. Through revelation(the holy spirit I suppose) God could communicate His morality to us.

  (Quote)

Hermes August 31, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Adito, at the level of the deity itself the free will of others isn’t an issue. Then again, like Scott, I don’t think that the Christian deity is credible and as such don’t consider it to be something that requires much discussion, in the same way that you probably(?) do not consider that Ra requires much discussion.

His comments on euthyphro emphasises much of what he’s saying but is not necessary except to address the actions of Christians.

Scott’s focus (AFAICT) is on the actual behavior and reasons given by people, including but not limited to Christians. Christians are singled out, and their deity is referenced, primarily because he is addressing his audience and environment where it is expected that it should be addressed.

Without those considerations, he could probably do a 5 minute video and be as complete, though I think the contrast he provides in terms of actual examples and logic is illustrative of where our morals actually come from.

  (Quote)

Hermes August 31, 2010 at 5:34 pm

While I think this video is spot on, he does make a few absolute statements that I don’t think he backs up. Few people are challenging him on those statements, though.

As a practical issue though, he might not have to. For example, as in the case of the statement ‘all swans are black’ only requires a single counter example showing a white swan or a gray swan or a swan of some other shade or color.

Maybe they can’t find examples?

  (Quote)

Patrick August 31, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Adito- You could only ground morality in divine revelation if you had a way to reliably tell which revelation was true and divine. This does not appear to be the case.

  (Quote)

Adito August 31, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Hermes, how could free will not be an issue? Should God be presented with a situation that He knows will develop into something bad, but the only way to stop it is to interfere with free will, then it seems that He’s obligated to let us make our own mistakes.

Now that a bad situation has developed and He sees that we could use guidance he will interfere in whatever way his omniscience deems best. Since an action by an omniscient being must be the perfect action to meet His goals and one of Gods goals is to promote human flourishing then it follows that whatever God does will be good for us whether we can see how or not. His actions would also only be what is completely necessary for our growth. Think of a child learning to speak, at first the child will only make sounds and unless some guidance is given on how to form words the child will never learn how to speak. In the same way God will intervene as necessary to allow us to grow.

In this way He will give us the tools we need to make our own choices. To follow my analogy a step further, even though a parent teaches a child what words mean that does not mean that he necessarily teaches a child when to use what words.

Patrick, that’s not what’s being challenged here. I’m simply saying that there is no reason to say that “an objective morality grounded in God is impossible.”

  (Quote)

Patrick August 31, 2010 at 9:50 pm

But for an objective morality to be grounded, you have to know what it is. Surely that’s part of the definition? An objective morality regarding which we have no reliable knowledge isn’t “grounded.”

I mean, if you’re going to go with your reasoning, why even bother with claiming personal divine revelation? Why not just proclaim that the Bible is wrong about God’s actions and God never did any of the evil stuff in the Bible. Proclaim that everything God actually did was really great, and we can base our morality on it. Except we don’t have a reliable way of knowing what it is, but apparently that’s not a problem?

Technically there’s also the other half of Scott’s argument where he addresses the “why obey god?” issue, and argues that any answer to that question is going to make re-base morality on a subjective goal, but before you even get that far, you have to actually have an objective moral proposition.

  (Quote)

Garren August 31, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Excellent presentation, except my plans to show this to conservative Christian associates and family were dashed by the swearing toward the end. To borrow a crime fiction phrase, it’s “a hair on the cake.”

  (Quote)

Adito August 31, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Patrick, have you conceded that a morality grounded in God is possible? It seems you must before you can talk about issues involving it’s practical application(such as how we might know it). The fact that we might not have knowledge of it is not an argument against it’s existence. We’re debating whether such a system is even possible.

You said, “Proclaim that everything God actually did was really great, and we can base our morality on it. Except we don’t have a reliable way of knowing what it is, but apparently that’s not a problem?”

First, for the sake of this argument I presupposed that the bible was inspired by God. It would be off topic to discuss whether this belief is itself grounded. Second, we can(theoretically) have a way of knowing what God is willing to teach us about morality through revelation. Again, whether this revelation is reliable is off topic. So long as God can be the source of an objective morality and can communicate parts of it with us then an objective morality founded on God is possible.

I don’t mind looking more closely at Scotts argument for not obeying God but, like you said, we need to have a starting point first.

  (Quote)

Patrick August 31, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Scott argued that we can’t look to God’s behavior for a guide to our behavior since God’s behavior seems contrary to what Christians believe to be moral (approving of or ordering his followers to murder their neighbors and take their daughters as brides/rape victims, etc), and that even if some secret reason existed for why that behavior was justified, we still couldn’t use that secret reason as a basis for morality since its… secret.

Scott also argues that any effort at proclaiming that God just somehow magically bases morality is vulnerable to the critique of a four year old: “You should obey God.” “Why?” And the moment you answer that question with anything other than JUST BECAUSE, you’re going to give a goal… and goals are subjective rather than objective.

Your response is to claim that God could communicate his morality with us through some other means than a scripture, such as divine revelation.

Why do you not see how this is an inadequate response?

You’ve got two major problems to deal with. First, you need to have some reason we should obey god or otherwise derive or receive morality from god. Second, you need to have some way we can know what god wants. Address these in whatever order you want.

I took your initial comment to be about the communication issue- if the Bible fails to communicate morality to us, you suggested that perhaps divine revelation could do so instead. But that would require that divine revelation be more reliable than the Bible, which seems obviously false. If anything divine revelation seems even more contradictory than scripture, given real world experience with purported divine revelation.

You can’t twist this into me endorsing the idea that God works as some sort of magical morality source that sidesteps the is/ought gap. They “why?” question still applies even if you answer my challenge about the reliability of revelation… which you haven’t.

  (Quote)

G'DIsraeli September 1, 2010 at 4:32 am

A reply from one of the more interesting theists on Youtube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILVynPBoYak&feature=sub

I hate this guy’s style. Boy, he makes me nauseous. Its messy,unclear and often annoying. It seems he is in love with him-self (“I(!) before everyone…”), sometimes I jump to the conclusion that its the only reason he actually deals with philosophy (feeding his ego). ehh…

  (Quote)

Hermes September 1, 2010 at 6:33 am

Adito: Hermes, how could free will not be an issue? Should God be presented with a situation that He knows will develop into something bad, but the only way to stop it is to interfere with free will, then it seems that He’s obligated to let us make our own mistakes.

Free will is not an issue since the target is not what deities do that interfere with the judgments and acts of non-deity entities.

It is not an issue because the deity is said to be an omnimax.

An omnimax is not limited, and even if reality only consisted of supposed deities with omnimax abilities, they would then act and by their own wills create worlds that fit their nature.

If they add anything to that mix that does not remove their omnimax nature.

Then again, more importantly, I like Scott try and get away from counting angels on the heads of pins and deal with actual reality. That’s why what I wrote was brief and I completed the paragraph with;

Adito, at the level of the deity itself the free will of others isn’t an issue. Then again, like Scott, I don’t think that the Christian deity is credible and as such don’t consider it to be something that requires much discussion, in the same way that you probably(?) do not consider that Ra requires much discussion.

I really think that is the case, and I need not look toward any discipline to conclude that. In the case of Christians, I only need to listen to them and read their religious books to determine that their deity does not match reality and thus is not credible. That is why most serious conversations on deities focus on quasi-deistic or pantheistic deities that are relabeled at some point usually with a point or two of dogma or theology thrown in with little justification. That is why I attempt to avoid them quickly since they don’t build on a solid foundation that includes what we know about reality.

Can we move on from that one throw away comment, and move to what I emphasized and what Scott seems to be getting at?

[Scott's] comments on euthyphro emphasises much of what he’s saying but is not necessary except to address the actions of Christians.

Scott’s focus (AFAICT) is on the actual behavior and reasons given by people, including but not limited to Christians. Christians are singled out, and their deity is referenced, primarily because he is addressing his audience and environment where it is expected that it should be addressed.

Without those considerations, he could probably do a 5 minute video and be as complete, though I think the contrast he provides in terms of actual examples and logic is illustrative of where our morals actually come from.

  (Quote)

Hermes September 1, 2010 at 6:44 am

Adito, do you agree with and take seriously every sentence in the following rephrasing;

Adito for Ra: Patrick, have you conceded that a morality grounded in Ra is possible? It seems you must before you can talk about issues involving it’s practical application(such as how we might know it). The fact that we might not have knowledge of it is not an argument against it’s existence. We’re debating whether such a system is even possible.

You said, “Proclaim that everything Ra actually did was really great, and we can base our morality on it. Except we don’t have a reliable way of knowing what it is, but apparently that’s not a problem?”

First, for the sake of this argument I presupposed that the holy scrolls were inspired by Ra. It would be off topic to discuss whether this belief is itself grounded. Second, we can(theoretically) have a way of knowing what Ra is willing to teach us about morality through revelation. Again, whether this revelation is reliable is off topic. So long as Ra can be the source of an objective morality and can communicate parts of it with us then an objective morality founded on Ra is possible.

I don’t mind looking more closely at Scotts argument for not obeying Ra but, like you said, we need to have a starting point first.

If not, then we are at an impasse as I do not take seriously the claims about the Christian deity existing as the Christians describe them.

Deistic deities are possible. Pantheistic deities are possible. But possible is a very low mark for entry. The Christian deity as it is often described (and other omnimax deities) don’t even meet that mark, and are solidly in the improbable if not impossible category.

Still, Patrick’s comments stand. Even if some deity — not an omnimax, obviously — should be followed and for moral reasons, what method do we have to know what to follow? Scott’s answer is that it all comes back to reasons that we as humans share already, so why bring up unnecessary additions like deities?

  (Quote)

Robert September 1, 2010 at 7:35 am

@Garren Yea, I wish he did not do that. I want some of my friends to see this except that they will be offended and miss the point. They will remember a bad word and dismiss the rest.

  (Quote)

Hermes September 1, 2010 at 7:47 am

Robert, the same people won’t watch it because of his channel name either.

While awkward, why not repost it without the last sentence or download it and stick it on a CD or DVD?

  (Quote)

Adito September 1, 2010 at 11:05 am

Patrick, you said, “we still couldn’t use that secret reason as a basis for morality since its… secret.”

I agree with the argument up to this point. An omniscient being who wants the best for humans would give them some method to determine parts of His morality.

““You should obey God.” “Why?” And the moment you answer that question with anything other than JUST BECAUSE, you’re going to give a goal… and goals are subjective rather than objective.”

They are not subjective if the ultimate destination for a creature with free will is to find a loving relationship with God. If that is what’s objectively right then it will simply be a foundational fact of existence. You can be “right or wrong” about it in the same way you can be right or wrong about looking at a rock and saying “I do not see a rock.”

“If anything divine revelation seems even more contradictory than scripture, given real world experience with purported divine revelation.”

Creatures with free will are fallible. It’s simply the case that most people who have divine experiences are mistaken about their source (or that they’re divine at all).

  (Quote)

Adito September 1, 2010 at 11:25 am

Hermes, you said “An omnimax is not limited, and even if reality only consisted of supposed deities with omnimax abilities, they would then act and by their own wills create worlds that fit their nature.

If they add anything to that mix that does not remove their omnimax nature.”

I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at. Are you saying that free will should not interfere with Gods trait of being all-good and therefor they can exist together without evil? If so then I think free will could simply have a different definition which includes a capacity for evil. An all powerful deity is capable of using his power or not using his power as he sees fit and it may be the case that free willed creatures can’t be acted on in certain ways for their freedom to continue. The points were action by God would infringe on free will happen to allow evil. This makes sense because the most basic trait you can give a creature with free will is freedom to reject you. Given that God is all-good a rejection of God will naturally result in evil.

“In the case of Christians, I only need to listen to them and read their religious books to determine that their deity does not match reality and thus is not credible.”

This is unrelated to whether or not a God can ground objective morality. It’s just a completely different topic.

“Can we move on from that one throw away comment, and move to what I emphasized and what Scott seems to be getting at?”

Sure, I agree with him completely. Given that there is no God (or at least no reason to believe in a God) Scott’s morality makes perfect sense and I see no problem with justifying actions based on his reasoning. His observation of people also seems to hold true and is well grounded by examining evolution and the basic traits humans tend to exhibit.

“Adito, do you agree with and take seriously every sentence in the following rephrasing;”

I agree that it’s logically valid and I do take it seriously. The Christian God was the object of Scott’s video and I can safely assume it’s the same God that we’ve all been arguing about. But it doesn’t actually matter which one you’d like to insert into my argument.

I don’t think we should be trying to tackle the entire argument for God’s existence all at once here. What I’ve been saying is that given a set of premises such as “God exists and is all-good, omniscient, all-powerful, and wants good for human beings” then we’re justified in saying that God can ground objective morals. Whether or not you decide to believe those premises is a different issue.

  (Quote)

James Onen September 1, 2010 at 11:38 am

Holy shit Scott Clifton is good. Five stars.

  (Quote)

Hermes September 1, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Adito, talk about deities is really a minor point. I’m going to mention it one more time and if I happen to leave you confused, I will apologize for not being clearer.

1. Assume no non-deity entities. None. Nada. Zero. Zip.

2. Assume all deity entities have an omnimax nature; any that exist are all good and all powerful.

3. Assume that some set of deity entities make a table.

4. The table will not be in violation of the nature of the omnimax deities.

Second example;

1. Assume no non-deity entities. None. Nada. Zero. Zip.

2. Assume all deity entities that exist are all good but not all powerful.

3. Assume that some set of deity entities make a table.

4. The table will flow from the nature of the deities yet can not be all good because it came from deities that had limited power to enforce their nature.

  (Quote)

Hermes September 1, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Adito: Sure, I agree with him completely. Given that there is no God (or at least no reason to believe in a God) Scott’s morality makes perfect sense and I see no problem with justifying actions based on his reasoning. His observation of people also seems to hold true and is well grounded by examining evolution and the basic traits humans tend to exhibit.

Note that what he says applies regardless of if any set of deities exist or not. That’s why he spent so much time to get to the point of reasons being used to arrive at morals by everyone regardless of religious preconceptions.

After all, as he points this out towards the end of his talk. To paraphrase (crudely);

If objective morality were to be shown that if you follow it you will cause harm and also will be sent to a hell when you die, but that if you do everything in violation of objective morality you will cause human flourishing and will go to a heaven when you die. What would you choose? Objective morality, or violating objective morality?

That is why he starts with the quote from Russell;

We have, in fact, two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practice, and another which we practice but seldom preach.

–Bertrand Russell

Source: http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/30152.html

  (Quote)

Hermes September 1, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Adito: I agree that it’s logically valid and I do take it seriously.

Do you intend to look into and study the morality of Ra and those holy scrolls?

  (Quote)

Adito September 1, 2010 at 1:17 pm

I believe I did understand what you meant. Why is it impossible given your first example (followed through step 3) for step 4 to be the conclusion? If you add a couple more steps like so:

1. Assume no non-deity entities. None. Nada. Zero. Zip.

2. Assume all deity entities have an omnimax nature; any that exist are all good and all powerful.

3. Assume that some set of deity entities make a table.

4. Assume that same set of deities wish for their creatures to have free will.

5. Assume that free will requires the creatures be capable of rejecting moral truth.

6. The table will not be in violation of the nature of the omnimax deities and will include free creatures with the capacity to do things that are not morally good.

We seem to reach a conclusion that only needs free will for evil to make sense. You conclusion seems to rest on ignoring the implications of free will given a universe in which an all-good, all-powerful deity grants it.

I do not think we’re obligated to believe that, should a deity exist, he must be less then all-powerful because of the nature of the world. I’d like to know if you see a flaw here but I’m fine with leaving it at this if you really don’t want to pursue it.

  (Quote)

Hermes September 1, 2010 at 1:19 pm

Adito: I don’t think we should be trying to tackle the entire argument for God’s existence all at once here. What I’ve been saying is that given a set of premises such as “God exists and is all-good, omniscient, all-powerful, and wants good for human beings” then we’re justified in saying that God can ground objective morals. Whether or not you decide to believe those premises is a different issue.

If the premises are flawed — as in the case of any omnimax deity (not just your pet deity) — then we can examine multiple premises;

1. The premise that any deity worthy of the title would be an omnimax. (This is the position of Epicurus.)

2. The premise that any deities being an omnimax is incorrect, but it does exist. (This is demonstrated in reality.)

3. The premise that any deities exist is incorrect. (This is my position as there is no positive evidence provided to support a deity existing.)

In Scott’s example, he simply doesn’t care as it has no impact on the results of his discussion.

  (Quote)

Hermes September 1, 2010 at 1:28 pm

Adito, the addition of other entities is a distraction. That’s why I didn’t include them. The issue is if the deities themselves are omnimax or not. They can’t be, in isolation or with the addition of other entities, but I don’t think I’ll be able to explain why to you briefly.

I’ll leave it at this: I take it as axiomatic that no deities are omnimax deities. I do not take it as axiomatic that no deities are plausible, just that none are probable as no positive evidence has been provided for them. Deist and pantheists have plausible general deities. To explain both positions would take time and detract from the main issues Scott brought up about morality and how we determine what is moral and what is not. I’m sorry I even mentioned it.

  (Quote)

Hermes September 1, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Nit, on #2 above. The premise that omnimax deities don’t exist is demonstrated, and the premise that non-omnimax deities is possible is not refuted.

  (Quote)

Hermes September 7, 2010 at 11:35 am

Scott Clifton follows up to one video reply on his moral philosophy;

Morality and Gratuitous Football Metaphors

Video he’s replying to;

Contra Theoreticalbullshit on Morality and God (channel: Epydemic2020O )

  (Quote)

Leave a Comment