On Morality and Logic (A Brief Response)

I recently encountered The Critical Eye, a blog about Christian apologetics by John David, that I have enjoyed reading. Today, he posted about logic and its application to morality. I intend to explore the topic of morality in more depth at a later time, but I wanted to write a brief response to John’s post.

The Gist

In his post, John is expounding on a conversation he’s been having about whether or not morality is objective. John provides a lengthy quote of his opposite’s argument for subjective morality. Considering I have not read the original conversation, I run the risk of misrepresenting the individual’s argument due to a lack of context. With that acknowledged, the subjectivity supporter’s argument can be summed up as:

The phrase “Stealing is bad” carries with it a lot of definitional baggage. What is “stealing?” What is “ownership?” The answer depends on who is answering. Why is stealing a large or expensive item worse than stealing a small or inexpensive item? What about people who steal to feed their starving family? Considering all of this, it is hard to see how morality is objective.

The supporter of subjectivity is simply bringing up descriptive moral subjectivity. Descriptive moral subjectivity is the observation that there is disagreement on what is moral. This is wholly uncontroversial. However, the supporter of subjectivity (in the passages quoted, at least) does not make clear how this should lead us to advocate meta-ethical moral subjectivity or normative moral subjectivity (the former being that nobody is right, objectively; the later being that, therefore, we ought to tolerate each other’s subjective moralities).

Descriptive moral subjectivity only undermines arguments for objective morality that claim that what is moral is obviously and clearly true. However, objective morality needn’t be this way. In fact, it doesn’t necessitate that we are even able to fully comprehend the absolute completeness of what is objectively moral. That someone, at some time, thought slavery was morally permissible does not make it so. In fact, even if everyone thought slavery was morally permissible, it could still be bad, objectively. Obviously, this begins to open up avenues for further exploration that I do not want to traverse at this time. I simply want to note that descriptive subjectivity is not as damning to objective morality as the subjectivity supporter seems to think.

Non-Contradicting Oneself

In his response, John turns to logic to try and demonstrate his point. John argues, “I think objective morality exists because the simple rules of logic, by deductive reasoning, demand it.” He references the first two classic laws of thought (the Law of Identity and the Law of Non-Contradiction) to defend his point. His argument goes like this:

P1: Stealing is bad
P2: Taking something without permission with the motivation of personal pleasure is stealing (e.g. taking a car because you want a nice car)
P3: Taking something without permission with the motivation of survival is stealing (e.g. taking food to feed one’s starving family)

Per Objective Morality: Both P2 and P3 are bad because stealing is bad.
Per Subjective Morality: P2 can be bad though P3 can be not bad.

According to the Law of Identity: Both P2 and P3 are stealing. P2 = P3.
According to the Law of Non-Contradiction: P2 and P3 have to be both true or both not true. It cannot be the case that P2 is true but P3 is not true (or vice versa).

As demonstrated above, only objective morality states that P2 and P3 must both be true or both be false. Therefore, objective morality is demanded by logic.

Arguments Fall Apart

John’s argument does not hold because it begs the question. In P1, he treats the premise as an objective statement, though he claims to be setting that aside. Specifically, John writes, “Now, my proposition is “stealing is not good”. So lets scrap out objective and subjective morality, lets start from zero. How many states of reality does this proposition holds to? Only two in my opinion. Either my statement is true, or it is not true.”

In stating that his proposition can only be true or false does not require that such truth or falsity be correct in an objective sense. However, he reinserts objectivity back into his definition. This leads him to assume his conclusion in his premise, making his argument fallacious.

Giving It Another Go 

To demonstrate this, let me restate John’s argument in a way that can accommodate subjective morality:

P1: There may or may not be an objective morality that deems stealing to be bad. [Edited to be worded better. Orginially: Stealing may or may not be bad, objectively.]

P2: In Karen’s opinion, stealing is bad.
P3: In Karen’s opinion, taking something without permission with the motivation of personal pleasure is stealing (e.g. taking a car to have a nice car)
P4: In Karen’s opinion, taking something without permission with the motivation of survival is not stealing (e.g. taking food to feed one’s starving family)

P5: In John’s opinion, stealing is bad.
P6: In John’s opinion, taking something without permission with the motivation of personal pleasure is stealing (e.g. taking a car to have a nice car)
P7: In John’s opinion, taking something without permission with the motivation of survival is stealing (e.g. taking food to feed one’s starving family)

Per Karen’s opinion:

According to the Law of Identity: P3 is stealing but P4 is not stealing.
According to the Law of Non-Contradiction: P3 and P4 are not the same thing. Therefore, P3 and P4 can be bad and not bad at the same time.

Per John’s opinion:

According to the Law of Identity: Both P5 and P6 are stealing.
According to the Law of Non-Contradiction: P5 and P6 are the same thing. Therefore, P5 and P6 cannot be bad and not bad at the same time.

In a combined sense:

According to the Law of Identity: P4 is Karen’s opinion. P7 is John’s opinion. P4 and P7 are not the same thing.
According to the Law of Non-Contradiction: Therefore, P4 and P7 can both be true even though they contradict on whether or not taking something without permission with the motivation of survival is stealing.

In this formulation of the argument, the Law of Non-Contradiction is never broken, but subjective morality is not ruled out, logically. Importantly, objective morality is not excluded through fallacious argumentation. The argument truly sets aside whether or not morality is objective and demonstrates that the classic laws of logic can accommodate subjective morality.

In Conclusion

So, whether or not morality is objective, John has failed to uphold his argument that “the simple rules of logic, by deductive reasoning, demand” objective morality.

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6 comments

  1. John A. David · November 1, 2012

    Thank you for your very insights. I enjoyed reading it. And I would like to clarify one thing. p4 is still stealing regardless of what motivation one has to do it. You can say its good or ‘not bad’ and justify it, but the act itself is stealing because if karen thinks that p4 is right then it directly contradicts p3 too. But only because its not her pleasure, you have differentiated the two. Yet it does not change anything. Karen’s argument would break away too. Personal pleasure or whim has nothing to do with the act itself.

    A man who steals to avoid starvation, still steals. We can only say, it can be justified or condoned but we can not say that he didn’t steal.

    If a pilot crashes a plane, can he say, I’m not responsible since it was not my personal pleasure or intent to crash the plane. Of course not, not pilot sits on the plane to crash it with his pleasure. But the crash is still a crash regardless of what caused the crash.

    Both of these arguments are strong, and that is because both of them seem to be internally consistent and that is why they both are so strongly argued.

    My position is not that stealing has a condition of personal pleasure, my positions, stealing is stealing, no matter why you do it. It may be understood (as in for survival) if not condoned. But that does not change the act itself.

  2. John A. David · November 1, 2012

    and one more thing, you may not notice this, but the law of non contradiction is not that we can just compare two statements, they must be equal in all ways, however opposite. My point is that you may not compare p4 and p7 because they are not equal on assumptions. they both are using different definitions of stealing.

    the proper argument via law of NC would be that
    karen thinks stealing for food is not bad.
    john thinks stealing for food is bad.

    the thing is we both are now using the same definition of stealing and we both agree on stealing, we disagree on motive and perception and therefore both cant be true about the same thing at the same time.

    my point in the original post is not that differing opinions dont exist, they do. thats why we have subjectivity, my point is subjectivity is not consistent.

  3. John A. David · November 1, 2012

    By the way, dont mind the punctuation and spell mistakes, I am writing from my phone.

    • thecaveatlector · November 1, 2012

      John,

      Thanks for your reply.

      Let me try this another way:

      You provide an example of a morally normative statement: stealing is not good.

      Next, you provide an example of what you call stealing: “taking, because you are starving, food you do not own”.

      For the sake of it, I will agree that stealing is not good. However, I will disagree that “taking, because you are starving, food you do not own” is not an example of stealing.

      Therefore, we have differing definitions of stealing.

      What we’re trying to determine is whether or not morality is objective. Now, it could be the case that morality is objective. If true, then one of us is wrong. However, it could be the case that morality is subjective. If true, then both of us is correct, within our subjective definitions.

      In your post, you aim to use the law of non-contradiction to demonstrate that subjective morality is illogical. However, you do this by implicitly positioning your definition of stealing as the objectively accurate definition of stealing. Upon doing so, you then claim that my definition contradicts yours, breaking the law of non-contradiction and showing that objective morality is true.

      My argument is that this is begging the question. You are placing objectivity in your premise to come to the conclusion of objectivity. This would be fallacious.

      You get at my point in your second comment:

      “…the law of non contradiction is not that we can just compare two statements, they must be equal in all ways…”

      Our two definitions of stealing are not equal in all ways. Therefore, the law of non-contradiction does not bare upon them (and thus does not disprove subjectivity). Where the law of non-contradiction can be used is in assuring that our individual definitions hold internal logical consistency.

      If there is objectivity, we can determine that one of our definitions is true. However, you cannot argue from objectivity because you are arguing for objectivity.

      Hopefully, that is a little more clear. I wrote the post on my lunch break, so I was a little rushed. I will fully acknowledge that my initial post may not have been clear.

      Regards,
      Jeff

  4. John A. David · November 2, 2012

    hey Jeff, thanks for clearing things up. I don’t suppose we’ll agree on all things but still…anyway to get to the point.

    I don’t rally think you disagree with me, in fact I’d say we agree agree on the act of stealing but not the motive. My position is that the motive for stealing has no effect on the act.

    Stealing is simply “taking another’s property without his consent”. I don’t think there is any definition which basically differs from this. karen’s argument only holds when you introduce things like “pleasure or whim”. Else it doesn’t and is internally inconsistent.

    Taking food and taking food without the person’s permission to whom that food belongs, are two different things.

    When someone say “I stole because I was hungry”, right there, they agree with me. They stole. To bring the motive with it, is extra luggage right here. I can understand why someone stole food. I can also see why that is “not bad” for those who are starving. But to say that stealing food is not stealing food, is again violation of the law of NC. Stealing is stealing because you took something which is not yours and that too without the owner’s consent.

    I work for people in labor camps around Pakistan, very poor people. I hope I post photos sometime soon, you might like to see our work but anyway, a lot of people are desperate and sometimes some people steal, some tell me fake stories and ask for money. There are times when I know they are really not telling the truth but I still give them that money because I know they are in need. And yet, their lie does not become the truth just because they are in need.

    You can say stealing food is not stealing food when you are desperate, I would disagree. I do not think that it is a stable consistent logic.

    As I said earlier my point was never that there are no subjective realities, there are. i just do not think they are consistent and good grounds for stable definitions.

    ****
    On a side note. Until your last post, I guess the definition of stealing was pretty obvious, I didn’t know you would disagree. I mean if you are going to go with your argument then I would just say that the “question begging fallacy” point would cut both ways. I can say that you are presuming subjectivity to begin with and then proving it all the same. See…:)

    Anyways, thanks and I hope we discuss more.

  5. Pingback: Lets define ownership: is stealing food – not stealing? « The Critical Eye

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