Atheistic Moral Platonism

There is an objection to the moral argument for God’s existence, specifically the premise which states the best explanation for the foundation for objective moral values and duties is God. It is the idea that moral values and duties can be plausibly anchored in some transcendent, non-theistic ground. That moral values and duties exist objectively, but as brute facts, not needing an explanation for their existence. They are sort of eternal unchanging ideas that are necessary features of the universe. This position we shall call Atheistic Moral Platonism, and there are three ways we could respond.

First, this view is difficult to even comprehend. What does it mean for “Love” to just exist? In the absence of people this value just doesn’t seem to make any sense. I understand what it means to be loving towards a person, but for the moral virtue Love to exist in the absence of people is just incomprehensible.

Second, the nature of moral obligation is incomprehensible on this view. If it is the case that these moral values such as Mercy, Love, and Justice just exist, unfounded and independently of God, what or who lays upon me an obligation to be merciful, or loving, or just? There are other sets of values also, like Greed, Hatred and Selfishness. Why am I obligated to choose one set of values over another?

Third, it is fantastically improbable that just the sort of creature would emerge from the blind evolutionary process would correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values and obligations. That our awareness of moral values and obligations derived from our evolutionary background, and this realm of objective moral values and obligations – two entirely separate orders of reality – found each other and corresponded is breathtakingly contrived.

And so this Atheistic Moral Platonism, as a sort of escape hatch for the conclusions of our argument, is in my view, on evaluation, not at all successful.

11 replies
  1. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Motivation to post this article was given to me tonight speaking to my friend Andy. He was asking me how to respond to the ideas of someone who; (1) does not believe in God, but (2) believes in “spirits” that (3) do not survive bodily death, and (4) believes in evil.

    I fumbled over a few clarifications of what’s what, and gave half an answer which was probably left my poor friend more confused. But the answer can be found above, I think. Ignoring (2) and (3) which are secondary issues, I think, and will probably resolve itself when the primary issue is dealt with – (1) God’s existence and (4) the existence of evil.

    Evil would, according to the person you were describing, be an objective moral value – evil is something that is actually there, can even be felt, etc. Without God to peg this objective moral value on (that is to explain it, or find a ground for its existence), the only other explanation I can think of for the existence of this objective moral value (evil) is what I’ve called Atheistic Moral Platonism and described above. This explanation I have found to be unsuccessful and incredibly implausible.

    The crux of the matter I suppose is the person who holds to (1) yet believes (4) needs to explain how there can be evil (an objective moral value) on an atheistic worldview.

  2. Rob
    Rob says:

    Stuart,

    Your friend sounds like he or she is confused about morality, like most of our culture.

    I think you have left a hole in one of your statements (following) for of course love DID exist before people were created. Perfect love has always existed in the trinity…

    “In the absence of people this value just doesn’t seem to make any sense.”

    Perhaps “…in the absence of mind(s)…” would be better?

    As to the likelihood of us evolving materially while some platonic morality existed “out there” which just happened to correspond to our need for morality — well, why not just invoke 10^10^10^7 universes (http://www.universetoday.com/2009/10/15/if-we-live-in-a-multiverse-how-many-are-there/). You need to get with it Stuart — the multiverse hypothesis easily accounts for all these things. In fact, in one universe you are my puppy dog, and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are disciples of Jesus :-)

  3. Simon
    Simon says:

    I have often thought that if a god did exist he would be a devil. For what else would a being with veto over the suffering in this world be?

    First, this view is difficult to even comprehend. What does it mean for “Love” to just exist? In the absence of people this value just doesn’t seem to make any sense. I understand what it means to be loving towards a person, but for the moral virtue Love to exist in the absence of people is just incomprehensible.

    In the early stages of the universe, there were no planets. But we are quite happy with the idea that planets were inevitable due to the specific peculiarities of the laws/constants of nature. So too for love.
    Besides, what is a ‘planet’ anyway? The universe knows of no ‘planets’ – all that exists is matter and energy roaming around. A planet is a very macroscopic, abstract entity. Like love.

    Second, the nature of moral obligation is incomprehensible on this view. If it is the case that these moral values such as Mercy, Love, and Justice just exist, unfounded and independently of God, what or who lays upon me an obligation to be merciful, or loving, or just? There are other sets of values also, like Greed, Hatred and Selfishness. Why am I obligated to choose one set of values over another?

    I don’t think it possible for a being to have comprehension of the concept of morality – mercy, love, Justice, greed, hatred, selfishness – without implicitly understanding the obligation. The two are intertwined. After all, it is a preposterous notion that a species would be able to recite the definitions of the words ‘love’, ‘hate’…. but have no idea of the obligation.

    Third, it is fantastically improbable that just the sort of creature would emerge from the blind evolutionary process would correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values and obligations. That our awareness of moral values and obligations derived from our evolutionary background, and this realm of objective moral values and obligations – two entirely separate orders of reality – found each other and corresponded is breathtakingly contrived.

    Clearly the two are consonant. They are simultaneous product of the same.

  4. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    I’m unclear if you are actually advocating the objection of Atheistic Moral Platonism. Perhaps you should clarify before you say anything else.

  5. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Rob,

    You are right that Love did exist before people were created. But by invoking the Triune God, we are giving the value Love a theistic ground, and not advocating Atheistic Moral Platonism which was on the chopping block. :-)

  6. Iapetus
    Iapetus says:

    Stuart,

    I find it rather ironic that you are apparently oblivious to the fact that your two major criticisms, if valid, would also damage your theistic morality.

    Let’s go through them, shall we?

    “First, this view is difficult to even comprehend. What does it mean for “Love” to just exist? In the absence of people this value just doesn’t seem to make any sense. I understand what it means to be loving towards a person, but for the moral virtue Love to exist in the absence of people is just incomprehensible.”

    Indeed, objective moral values and duties would be of a metaphysical nature which is hard to conceptualize for us. While we can conceive of abstracta like integers or sets existing somehow as Forms independently of humans, it is even stranger to imagine “moral abstracta” that additionally possess an intrinsic motivating and action-guiding capacity. Actually, this very same argument is made by Mackie in his “Ethics – inventing Right and Wrong” against the plausibility of objective morality.

    Now, the problem is that this argument is equally applicable to theistic objective morality. If you take the edicts of your god to result in objective moral values and duties, what is their nature? Where do they reside? How can they possess motivating and action-guiding force? And how is this characteristic connected to our earthly realm, i.e. what is the mechanism by which the moral “goodness” or “badness” gets channelled into our reality and intimately intertwined with certain actions (or inactions)?

    “Second, the nature of moral obligation is incomprehensible on this view. If it is the case that these moral values such as Mercy, Love, and Justice just exist, unfounded and independently of God, what or who lays upon me an obligation to be merciful, or loving, or just?”

    This does not really make sense. If you deem “Mercy” or “Love” to be a moral value, you have already answered your question. IOW, “Mercy” or “Love” are either morally “good” or “bad”. Since it is the very nature of moral values to allow or prohibit actions, you necessarily have to act in accordance with said values if you want to act morally “correct”.

    Of course, no one can force you to do so. Thus, you can reject to behave loving and mercifully. But then you can not claim to act morally “correct”.

    And again, theism has the very same problem. The fact that a god demands adherence to his view does not enhance the binding nature of morality compared to its atheistic counterpart, since it is deemed to be “objective” in both cases. What could you possibly require over and above this? Are you asking for some kind of “meta-morality” which tells you “It is morally required to act in a morally required way”?. I can see the infinite regress from here.

    One could argue that, on a practical level, the threat of eternal torment in the afterlife might enhance the willingness of people to adhere to morality. But this is irrelevant for the question at hand. A person can ignore or consciously contravene morality in a theistic as well as an atheistic reality. Moreover, if you really need the threat of punishment to adhere to a certain morality, you introduce an untilitaristic component which completely undermines any claims of superiority based on an alleged “objectivity”.

    “There are other sets of values also, like Greed, Hatred and Selfishness. Why am I obligated to choose one set of values over another?”

    See above.

    In general, your view suffers from the flaw we already discussed over at OpenParachute with regard to “Purpose”, namely a lack of parsimony. You are effectively arguing for a form of Platonism with theism attached to it. This will inevitably leave you in the uncomfortable position of having to justify the addition of a fantastically complex, supernatural entity to a view which is perfectly viable without it. Unless you can show why this addition is necessary, any criticism you level against atheistic objective morality will result in undermining the credibility and coherence of your own position.

    Kant clearly saw this pitfall, which was one of the reasons why he was extremely careful to leave a god out of the foundations of his moral system.

    Finally, regarding this:

    “Third, it is fantastically improbable that just the sort of creature would emerge from the blind evolutionary process would correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values and obligations.”

    Firstly, you are confusing ontology with epistemology. The question whether objective moral values exist as brute facts of our reality is separate from whether we can gain knowledge about them and whether our knowledge is completely false/somewhat distorted/completely accurate.

    Second, on what basis do you calculate probability here? How do you know that it is “fantastically improbable” that evolutionary processes would result in creatures which are capable to glimpse objective moral values (however imperfectly)? Unless you can give some arguments in this regard, it seems all we have here is an unsubstantiated expression of incredulity.

    Third, this form of scepticism can be brought to bear on your own position. How can you be sure that your evaluation of love, mercy etc. as objectively “good” and greed, hatred etc. as objectively “bad” is not mistaken?

    Finally, if you really want to bring in the theory of evolution, one could even argue that it makes our ability to perceive moral values more likely:

    We know that organisms evolve in constant interaction with their environment. If said environment contains moral values capable of being recognized and furthermore if certain values like empathy, kindness or compassion result in competitive advantages in animals adjusting their behaviour accordingly (which we have ample empirical evidence for), it is perfectly plausible to suggest a selection pressure towards creatures having a better and more accurate grasp of said values.

    Naturally, I do not believe that this is in fact the case. However, if we grant for the sake of argument the existence of objective moral values, I do not see why our evolutionary past should not have endowed us with the ability to perceive them, just as it has endowed us with the ability to detect electro-magnetic radiation of a specific wavelength.

  7. Simon
    Simon says:

    I’m unclear if you are actually advocating the objection of Atheistic Moral Platonism. Perhaps you should clarify before you say anything else.

    Yes, I am.

  8. Simon
    Simon says:

    It is the idea that moral values and duties can be plausibly anchored in some transcendent, non-theistic ground. That moral values and duties exist objectively, but as brute facts, not needing an explanation for their existence.

    I think I can formulate an anchor for such moral values.

    I can observe, descriptively, factually:
    – That I like to be happy.
    – That other people like to be happy.
    – That societies in which lying is frowned upon are happier.

    I can then formulate the rule that: “people ought not to lie”.

  9. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Hello SImon,

    I applaud your efforts to find an anchor – an explanation, if you will – for the existence of moral values. However, if you’re giving an explanation for objective moral values that’s not Atheistic Moral Platonism, as this position affirms their existence as brute facts that don’t require explanations for their existence – they necessarily exist from eternity.

    In response however, the inference to “ought” from that which “is” is spurious. You can formulate that rule – that’s correct – but from your three descriptive and factual observations all you have is subjective morality, not the objective morality that Athesitic Moral Plantonism affirms.

  10. Simon
    Simon says:

    Stuart, you wrote this:

    …It is the idea that moral values and duties can be plausibly anchored in some transcendent, non-theistic ground….

    What do you consider “plausibly anchored” to mean?
    I refer you to post 3. Even before planets existed in the universe, they were inevitable. So too with morality. The equivalent of your position is someone who demands that planets must have existed for all time!
    In this way I DO hold to an Atheistic Moral Platonism, but the brute moral facts are an emergent property, like planets are.

    (I also hold that my argued morality is objective as it is derived from objective facts)

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