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.
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.
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.
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.