“The Moral Argument” by Mark Linville (Part 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 13, 2009 in Ethics,Reviews

dignityIn the first post of this series, I reviewed the first half of Mark Linville’s “The Moral Argument” from The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. I argued both that “Linville’s moral argument against evolutionary naturalism fails” and also that “Linville’s argument should be compelling to practically everyone.” Of course, you’ll have to read that post to see what I mean.

In that post, I actually agreed with Linville’s main point – that evolutionary naturalism gives us no reason to trust our moral sense that rape is wrong and charity is right. If moral facts exist, they can only be revealed by reason and evidence, with no reference at all to our evolved moral sense. I’ve argued that before. But I don’t think this defeats atheistic morality, and it certainly doesn’t provide an argument for theism.

But now I turn to the argument defended in the second half of the article, an Argument from Personal Dignity.

After spending 30 pages arguing that we can’t trust our evolved moral sense, Linville immediately asserts that moral facts can be known immediately, through our moral sense:

Presumably, bayoneting babies for fun (and for any other reason) is wrong. Indeed, we might suppose the belief that it is wrong to be included in that fund of moral beliefs with which we begin moral reflection… we might appeal to such a belief as we seek to construct or assess theories of morality. We may well suppose that any ethical theory that implies the permissibility of recreational baby-bayoneting is worthy of the dustbin.

“Presumably,” indeed. Linville is sure to win the emotions of his readers on this point, but he shows no intention of arguing for it.

With much talk about the horrors of rape, torture, and baby-killing, Linville seeks to bludgeon his readers into agreement that humans have “intrinsic dignity” that must not be violated.

By this, he means that humans are appropriate objects of direct moral duties. Vandalizing a car is not wrong because you violate the rights of the car, but because you violate the rights of a human, for example the owner’s property rights. You have indirect moral duties to the car by way of your direct moral duties to its owner, who has intrinsic dignity (unlike the car).

But how do we know this? How do we know that humans possess intrinsic dignity? Because it really feels that way to us, Linville says. Our moral sense tells us that humans have intrinsic dignity, so it must be true. That’s the only evidence Linville gives. And on this shaky foundation he builds his entire case.

Linville then proceeds to show why egoism, utilitarianism, virtue ethics, Ideal Observer Theory, and all forms of naturalism1 fail to give an account of why we should respect human dignity. He then makes an argument I might formalize like so:

(1) If naturalism is true, human persons do not have intrinsic dignity.
(2) Human persons have intrinsic dignity.
(3) Therefore, naturalism is not true.

This is similar to his earlier moral argument, which can be condensed to:

(1) If naturalism is true, we have no moral knowledge.
(2) We have moral knowledge.
(3) Therefore, naturalism is not true.

But in neither case does Linville actually argue for the second premise. He merely says that we all feel strongly that humans have intrinsic dignity and that we have moral knowledge, and therefore we know that humans do have intrinsic dignity and that moral do facts exist. And I think this is why such arguments are compelling to so many people. They are not compelling because they are well-defended (premise 2 is not defended in either argument), but because they are emotionally satisfying. Had Linville been writing in the 16th century, he might have argued:

(1) If Kepler is correct, we are not at the center of the universe.
(2) We are at the center of the universe, since we strongly feel this to be true, and it is comforting.
(3) Therefore, Kepler is not correct.

We have no more reason to accept Linville’s moral argument or his argument from dignity than to accept the hypothetical argument against Kepler.2

There are several problems with this half of Linville’s paper, but this is the most basic. Linville makes no attempt to defend the idea that humans have intrinsic dignity. And in fact, I deny that intrinsic dignity exists. What is intrinsic dignity? How do you make sense of that metaphysically? What facts about the universe are better explained by the existence of intrinsic dignity than by a simpler theory that does not need to posit the existence of intrinsic dignity? Why should we think that humans have intrinsic dignity, but not (perhaps) Neanderthals and other apes? What evidence would show that a thing has intrinsic dignity, while something else does not?

jesus_comforting_2As with Linville’s moral argument, his argument from personal dignity is given not with a strong case of reasons why it is true, but a strong case that it is comforting. “There, there, worried human. You have intrinsic dignity. You are more grand and important than the whales and chimps and Neanderthals. I have imbued you with special worth and dignity. You feel it to be true with your emotions, and this is the same thing as knowing it to be true with your head. Don’t worry; everything is okay.”

There are other problems with Linville’s argument from personal dignity, and I will discuss them next time.

  1. Linville argues that naturalism cannot account for the existence of persons, and thus all forms of naturalism fail to account for the dignity of persons. Almost necessarily, this discussion of persons falls prey to frequent equivocation on the meaning of “person” or “self.” But there are other problems, Linville says: “how to derive the personal from the impersonal, how to derive values from a previously valueless universe, and how to unite the personal and the valuable with the result of a coherent and plausible notion of personal dignity.” []
  2. Except, with regard to Linville’s moral argument, I agree that premise (2) may be true, but if it is, then premise (1) is false. []

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Yair June 14, 2009 at 4:37 am

I think this is your first post where I completely agree with you. Haven’t read the original yet, but assuming you got him right, I fully agree with your critique (even though I don’t agree with your DU).

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Chuck June 14, 2009 at 7:55 am

It’s Alonzo Fyfe’s theory. What about it don’t you agree with?

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 8:49 am

Yair,

Well, you know I’m not the bandwagon type, but it’s nice to know you occasionally agree with me. :)

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Yair June 14, 2009 at 9:10 am

Chuck: It’s Alonzo Fyfe’s theory. What about it don’t you agree with?

I believe it has an is-ought premise hiding at its core – that it describes the landscape of desires well-enough, but then erroneously concludes that something like constructive co-existence of desires is The Good. You could say I disagree with its meta-ethics, as I’m a subjetivist, or individual-relativist.

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 9:33 am

Yair,

Desire utilitarianism definitely has no concept of The Good. To see why a harmony of desires is ‘good’ without investing “a harmony of desires” with any kind of metaphysical realtionship with The Good, see A Harmony of Desires, one of Alonzo’s most important posts.

Where I’m coming from meta-ethically is basically what Stephen Finlay argued in “The Error in Error Theory” in 2008. I was an error theorist until Alonzo showed me that there is a kind of ‘universal morality’ that DOES exist. Of course, it is simultaneously and trivially true that each person has her own moral code (what I take to be individual relativism), and persons and groups have opinions about morality that they express about right and wrong (what I take to be subjectivism).

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Steven Carr June 14, 2009 at 9:40 am

‘Presumably, bayoneting babies for fun (and for any other reason) is wrong.’
 
And letting them burn in Hell for all eternity is just?

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 9:50 am

Steven,

Lol. Christianity is just too easy a target.

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Yair June 14, 2009 at 1:23 pm

lukeprog: Yair,Desire utilitarianism definitely has no concept of The Good. To see why a harmony of desires is ‘good’ without investing “a harmony of desires” with any kind of metaphysical realtionship with The Good, see A Harmony of Desires, one of Alonzo’s most important posts.

I remain unconvinced. I can pinpoint the exact word where Alfoso goes wrong: ” Another way of saying the same thing is to say that Sec’s desire to scatter stones is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires”; it should be “Fris’s desires”. It is desirable for us to change others’ desires to be harmonious with (or, rather, serve) our own desires, not with the total landscape of desires. I’m afraid I’m still seeing The Good lurking there, grinning manically while pretending to be innocous.

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Yair,

In the possible world of that post, Firs’ desires ARE the only other desires in the total landscape of desires. Our desires are, precisely, reasons for action to influence the malleable desires of others to harmonize with our own. The desires of others are, precisely, reasons for action to influence our own malleable desires to harmonize with theirs.

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Yair June 14, 2009 at 9:42 pm

 

lukeprog: Yair,In the possible world of that post, Firs’ desires ARE the only other desires in the total landscape of desires.

That’s why that scenario is misleading.

Our desires are, precisely, reasons for action to influence the malleable desires of others to harmonize with our own. The desires of others are, precisely, reasons for action to influence our own malleable desires to harmonize with theirs.

First, this is not my understanding of what DU espouses. DU is about making desires harmonize with all desires, not with my desires. Take the example of the community, for example. Fyfe says “ the community has more and stronger reasons to give the newcomer a desire to scatter stones”, but this is irrelevant – it is never “the community” that makes decisions, but rather individual people. If I’m a stone gatherer in that community, my interest is to make the newcomer a stone scatterer regardless of the others’ wishes; . I don’t want to “harmonize” with “more and stronger” reasons, but rather with my own’s.  If I happen to be stronger, I’ll manage to impose my will. Fyfe treats the collective, balanced, sum of desires as defining what is The Good, whereas the actual individual desires determine what is “the good” for the individual.
Perhaps this is a mistake of Fyfe? Perhaps what you call DU is indeed about making the “desires of others to harmonize with our own”?  As I showed above, this is definitely not what Fyfe is saying in the above post, he is talking about “more and stronger” desires.
Secondly, our goal is not to “harmonize” other desires to our own, but rather to have them serve our desires. Whether this leads to harmonizatio or not is a second, seperate, question. Sometimes it would, sometimes it wouldn’t (like in my community example above). Harmonization isn’t the key, we all act to fulfill our own desires rather than to harmonize desires.

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Dave June 14, 2009 at 10:10 pm

You know, I’m surprised that I’m not more interested in metaphysics in general than I am. I’ve been interested in philosophy of religion since college, and I’ve always been most interested in the analytical portion of it, the part that asks, “is it true?” That’s why the “new atheism” doesn’t interest me all that much.
 
Ethics interest me even less. (Sorry!)
 
If someone were to ask me what my primary focus is as a philosopher, I probably wouldn’t say epistemology, probably because my disillusionment with Ayn Rand in college turned me off of it. But epistemology probably is the correct answer. Luke, if we ever get around to making a Blackwell response site, I call the chapter on religious experience. ;)

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 10:20 pm

Yair,

The scenario is obviously nothing like the real world – it was invented to explain a very specific point. That’s the point of thought experiments like that.

I did not say that MY desires and YOUR desires are the only reasons for action we’re considering.

“Fyfe treats the collective, balanced, sum of desires as defining what is The Good”

No, no, no. Fyfe treats each desire (or, more technically, each relation between a desire and a state of affairs) as a reason for action. That’s it.

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lukeprog June 14, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Dave, have you read that chapter? Easily the weakest of the book, but that’s no surprise to me.

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Yair June 15, 2009 at 1:26 am

 

lukeprog: No, no, no. Fyfe treats each desire (or, more technically, each relation between a desire and a state of affairs) as a reason for action. That’s it.

What, then, is the purpose of referring to the “more and stronger”?
Forget Fyfe, what do you say? In the example of the community, assuming nearly everyone is a stone gatherer (so that the collective will is for a scatterer), should I as a stone-scatterer act to follow the “more and stronger” desire for the newcomer (harmonizing the desires by making him a stone scatterer), or should I endeavor to make him a stone-gatherer (serving my interests)? If the latter, why do you call this “desire utilitarianism”, when everyone else seems to call it “individualistic relativism” or “individualistic subjectivism”? If the former, how is it I should want to act against my own desires?

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Dace June 15, 2009 at 3:06 am

@Lukeprog
“Intrinsic value” used to drive me nuts in ethics, so its nice to see it critically treated.
@Yair
From what I’ve read, I think something that confuses DU is that Fyfe doesn’t straightforwardly come out and say that his ethical theory, if person A understands it, would not necessarily change how A acts in any given situation. A serial killer could perfectly well understand DU, and thus have the correct view of ethics, and yet carry on with the killing. This would be consistent.
But when most people think about ethics, they consider it to be the mark of a successful theory that it will persuade a would-be transgressor, or at least that it would if they were completely rational. So far as I’ve been able to work out, Fyfe would deny this – there’s no reason why we should expect this of our ethical theory. I find I agree.
With that in mind,  Yair, DU isn’t going to have any amazing persuasive power which leads you to serve the interests of your community.  And yet, since the community as a whole would have more and stronger desires fulfilled by having the newcomer scatter stones, it is still a fact that the desire to influence the newcomer into being a stone-scatterer is morally good. It is still a fact that the balance of reasons for action falls on the side of stone-scattering. These may not be your reasons for action, granted, but then why should we expect that from any ethical theory?

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Yair June 15, 2009 at 3:48 am

 

Dace: From what I’ve read, I think something that confuses DU is that Fyfe doesn’t straightforwardly come out and say that his ethical theory, if person A understands it, would not necessarily change how A acts in any given situation.

Thanks, that does help.

since the community as a whole would have more and stronger desires fulfilled by having the newcomer scatter stones, it is still a fact that the desire to influence the newcomer into being a stone-scatterer is morally good.

No it isn’t. Well, not unless you equate having more and stronger desires fulfilled with being morally good, which is kinda begging the question. The only clear fact here is that

the [global] balance of reasons for action falls on the side of stone-scattering.

Sure.

These may not be your reasons for action, granted, but then why should we expect that from any ethical theory?

 
Because ethics is about convincing people to act in this way or that, it is about getting them to live their lives in a certain way, it is a prescriptive rather than descriptive theory. By calling the balance of power ‘good’ you are implicitly evoking all of that. If all you want is to describe the situation, not to convince anyone, you should use un-loaded terms, perhaps inventing a new term such as ‘Harmonious’.
Now, I’m not saying that a single ethical theory can convince anyone. I am saying that a single meta-ethical framework can convince everyone, namely that morality is about furthering the person’s desires, and that for each individual a specific ethical theory should then be constructed, tailored fitted to his desires. Fortunately, since we’re all human, I think in practice the tailoring need not be too great and the same basic design can serve (nearly) all.

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lukeprog June 15, 2009 at 6:50 am

Yair,

Some desires are stronger than others. Thus, some reasons for action are stronger than others.

Morality is concerned with a calculation of ALL the reasons for action that exist, regardless of which ones are “mine” or “yours.” My reasons for action carry special weight in determining what I WILL do, but they do not carry special weight in determining what I SHOULD do.

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lukeprog June 15, 2009 at 6:52 am

Dace,

Fyfe has written many times that DU does not accommodate motivational internalism. He sees this as a problem for motivational internalism, not desire utilitarianism. And he is not the only one who thinks that moral talk is not centrally committed to motivational internalism.

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Yair June 15, 2009 at 7:41 am

lukeprog: Morality is concerned with a calculation of ALL the reasons for action that exist, regardless of which ones are “mine” or “yours.” My reasons for action carry special weight in determining what I WILL do, but they do not carry special weight in determining what I SHOULD do.

Why? And above all, why should I care about this thing you call “morality”? I say your theory is not about morality, it is about the harmonics of desires. I don’t see why it would be of interest to anyone.  I might as well construct a theory on how large desire constructs can get – who cares?
 
 
And what is this mythical “should” you speak of? What does this non-motivational should even mean? You have defined Harmonic as something, and then jump to saying I “should” promote harmony; presumably this “should” is part of your theory of harmonics, but its meaning is never spelt out. Why does the fact that desire X is Harmonic imply that I SHOULD promote it, and what does that mean if it is not to be the motivational or functional “should” that we’re all familiar with? [As in "If you want to kill yourself, you should jump off a bridge"]
 
 
This is absolutely “smuggling desire-independent morality distinct from fact in the back door”. I might as well say that you SHOULD act to promote non-Harmonic desires, there is nothing you have said that shows otherwise. The only fact that has been established is the harmonicity, not any “should”!
 
 
Our meta-ethical concerns seem ubridgable. I am interested in a theory to guide human actions, you are interested in a theory that elaborates a mysterious “should” without ever nailing it down, except to arbitrarily relate it to some abstract calculus of desires that is of no one’s interest. I don’t think both can be called “moral”, these are seperate subjects (although I’m at a loss as to what your subject actually is).

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Dave June 15, 2009 at 7:54 am

Luke, no I haven’t read it just yet. My to-do list needs some cleaning-up, I’m afraid. Perhaps I’ll set aside time to read it tonight.

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Dave June 15, 2009 at 7:56 am

I neglected to add: like Swinburne (I think — last I checked, anyway), I regard the argument from religious experience to be the strongest argument that Christian theists have to offer. I think a Bayesian could possibly even use it to raise p(G&k) above 0.5. So if religious experience is the weakest in the book, I’m in for a disappointment.

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lukeprog June 15, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Yair,

There are many theories of what morality is. Most of them refer to things that do not exist: intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, and the like. I defend a theory of morality that fits a great deal of our moral language by only referring to things that exist.

You do not have to care about morality. Many people do not. If you do not care about what you have moral reasons for action to do, I cannot make you.

The only kind of “should” that exists is the hypothetical “should”. If you want to star in the NBA you should practice dribbling. That is an uncontroversial use of the word “should”, and it is the only kind of should on which desire utilitarianism depends.

A better explanation of my views is coming, once I make some progress on my “intro to ethics” course.

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Dace June 15, 2009 at 6:50 pm

@Yair
I hear you, but I think that once you get into the details of your meta-ethical-theory-which-convinces-everyone you will have exactly the same problem that you think Fyfe has – it will not be obvious that your theory is a moral theory. This is the knock on ethical egoism, and I think it will be on your theory too. Weighing up whether Fyfe’s or your view is closer to what we mean in the use of moral language, I think Fyfe’s will turn out to be closer.
 
@lukeprog
Thanks for the confirmation. Obviously, I haven’t read all his stuff yet. I almost feel that this point should come at the start of a description of desire utilitarianism – it’s such a widely held misconception, and I think its tremendously important. Sat in the back of my mind through those first chapters of his online book.

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Yair June 15, 2009 at 11:33 pm

Dace: I hear you, but I think that once you get into the details of your meta-ethical-theory-which-convinces-everyone you will have exactly the same problem that you think Fyfe has – it will not be obvious that your theory is a moral theory.

Perhaps. I think the important thing is to make a philosophically useful distinction, and if it corresponds roughly to what we mean by “morality” in everyday speech (and I think mine would) then I think it’s fair to call it that. Ultimately, words mean what we want them to, and following the dictionary is no way to do philosophy.

lukeprog: You do not have to care about morality. Many people do not. If you do not care about what you have moral reasons for action to do, I cannot make you.

NO ONE cares about what you define as “morality”. Or if he does, it is only because he has desires that make him care, so we’re back at my position. And as an empirical fact, I don’t think humans have the desire to follow DU built-in, or more accurately I think DU is a poor description of but one aspect of people’s desires.
 
I do plan on reading your intro to ethics and especially the defense of DU, perhaps that will “show me the light” :)

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