Don’t Fool Yourself: The Moral Argument


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After suggesting moral anti-realists live a life based on make believe, I was asked what I mean by “make believe.” I would say something is “make believe” when it is the product of our minds that is not dictated or constrained by objective reality.


I would say Star Wars is make believe.   Yes the author chose to have some things, like gravity, seem to work in similar ways to objective reality but he didn’t have to.  He could have done it different and so objective reality did not dictate or constrain him.


Just like the moral anti-realist might say well suffering (or whatever they want to say) is part of reality and I am basing “my morality” on that.  But they are just choosing to base it on that.  There is nothing about objective reality that dictates or constrains their choice.  If you do think objective reality dictates or constrains a rational view that something is moral, or not, then you are a moral realist – as I understand the term.


If you just say it is based on my desires and they are real.  Well the author of Star Wars desired to write Star Wars but it is still make believe.    Simply desiring that things should be a certain way does not make it so, nor does it say anything about the world beyond your mental construction of how it should be.  Those mental constructions (not dictated by objective reality) are what we call make believe.  And if you are choosing to live your life based on them, I think a more rational alternative is available.


One might say that I am living my life based on make believe.  And I would say that might be.  Even Paul seemed to acknowledge that was possible when he said “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” 1 Corinthians 15:17.   But the key word for Paul myself and all Christians is the “if.”  At least we are living our life based on something that we think has a chance of being true.    Some Christians might place that chance very high.  Others may place it very low.  But none of them, that I know, are saying they know it is all make believe because they themselves are making it up as they go.  Even if they were, they would be no different than many atheists who take an anti-realist position when it comes to morality.  Because both are openly admitting they are making it all up.


I think that is an irrational choice in the face of uncertainty.   The Christian God has a chance of being true.  Why live your life based on something you know is just make believe?


This is why I think it is simply incorrect to say the Christians are the ones fooling themselves.  They are not the ones pretending there is purpose to make them feel better.  They may very well realize that there might be no purpose and our faith may be in vain.  But they also correctly see there is another possibility, we may, after all, have a purpose.  So we walk the path that most likely will lead to real meaning instead of just making one up and pretending that is the way.

Scientific Knowledge is Overrated


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In our culture saying the title is almost like saying “I hate children.”  How dare anyone suggest that scientific knowledge is overrated?  Clearly the only acceptable view is that science could never be over-rated and it could only possibly be under-rated.   But if we would allow that it is at least possible, then I suggest we consider how highly we rate both the scope of science as well as the value of scientific knowledge.

The claim that religion was there as a “stand in” until science could take it’s place is likely the oddest claim I have heard more than once.   It reveals what I think is a bizarre bias of our time.  Some people think that science and how nature works is so important to know, that they naturally think that was what religion was there for.   God revealed himself in the bible to explain lightening and how the mountains were made.

Our current culture values these sorts of “what is” or “how does this thing work” beliefs way out of proportion so we shouldn’t be surprised that people in our culture come to such an odd view.  The assumption seems to be, of course, the most important parts of any scripture are the ones that might overlap with science.  The fact that such a small fraction of scripture even deals with anything even arguably scientific is just more proof religion is misguided.

My life didn’t really change much after finding out how mountains were made.   Getting a scientific understanding of tectonic plates changed very little in my life and to that extent is not really important to me.   The very notion that Christianity or any religion existed to help us explain the natural world reveals how off kilter the importance we place on this knowledge of the natural world.  Christianity is a religion that helps us address the more important question – “how should we live?”.  The answers science can provide are interesting and sometimes they can help us address that important question.  But science does not address that question directly.     The major religions that exist deals with that directly.    That is the point of these religions – and really it is quite obvious to anyone who knows them.

It seems some people see the question “how should I live?” as a sort of afterthought.  They are so full of reasons to believe this or that is the case and so concerned about having evidence for this or that view of the state of things that when the question comes up it’s almost like would like to wave it away.  Like oh yeah if you want to talk about that silliness then here is my view…. And what follows is often some sort of poorly thought through mantra that demonstrates how little time they spend on it compared to the scientific “what is” questions they want really to get back to.

People now seem to think the most important thing is to fill our heads with beliefs that are more likely true than not and expunge those beliefs that do not pass that evidential muster.  There seems no concern with what seems obviously just as an important question.  How should I live?   Science has taught us many things but that does not mean it is the source of the most important information.

Overrating science is also done in that people try to claim science can answer questions it clearly can not answer.  We saw some of this scientific morality with the Nazis and communists.   But even today we see scientists taking the stage to talk about morality or other philosophical issues.  I am not interested in celebrity views on politics or science or philosophy, but I can see some people are curious about the views of their favorite celebrity.  But scientists are not celebrities, yet we see them selling books or lecturing on philosophy.  Why?   Is it good philosophy?  No, it’s because the scope of that field is overrated.

Science can help us live longer.  However, it does not teach us what to do with the extra time.  Religion does.   There is such a thing as useless knowledge.  And all knowledge is on this spectrum.

I feel like a conversation with certain atheists goes like this:  Why do you collect these acorns?  So I can plant more oak trees.  Why do you want to plant more oak trees?  Because they produce more acorns.  So why do we care they produce acorns?  Well we can then collect the acorns.  Why do you …. Oh wait.  Or why do you learn science?  Science will help us survive longer.  Why should we want to survive longer?  So we can learn more science.  I want to survive longer and I like oak trees, but I hope you can see my point.  It’s fine if you want to argue King Sisyphus is happy.   But, many of these same atheists saying we should live longer for the sake of living longer, also want to convince me that there is so much evil and misery in the world, God should be indicted.

Even studying in philosophy the focus was so much on Does God exist?   And we also focus on how and what it means to “know” a proposition concerning the external world. (See Cartesian Skepticism, and the Gettier problems)  After thoroughly trying to answer those question I ultimately decided it doesn’t really matter how we define “knowledge” as the fundamental problems presented by Descartes and similar arguments still have weight.  I think this time spent in philosophy was well spent because it dealt with a my understanding of a huge amount of beliefs.  It helped me learn that life does indeed have uncertainty and we need to deal with it.   Trying to define the problems away is not helpful.    It also helped me see the obsession our culture has with knowing “what is”.

I hope that is changing.  At the time I was in college majoring in philosophy there were no classes offered in what is now called meta-ethics were we could even start to ask “How should I live?” and what do we even mean to live rightly?  I had to pursue those questions on my own.  I think and hope this is changing.  Answering the question how we should live should not be an afterthought.

More on the Euthyphro Dilemma: Does it Really help Atheists?


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In a prior blog  I argued that divine Command theory was a form of subjectivism and anti-realist and that all forms of anti-realist morality would have deep problems.  Here I want to set forth a smaller claim.  Do the problems directed at divine command theory apply to all subjectivist theories (sometimes called relativist theories) of morality?

So again Divine Command Theory is the view that right and wrong is simply whatever God decides it is.  Socrates addressed it in the Euthyphro Dilemma by asking:

1) is an act pleasing to the gods because it is good,

or rather

2) is an act good because it is pleasing to the gods?

The Divine command theory says 2 is correct.   An act is good because it is pleasing to God.   Whatever is God’s will to be good, is good.  That is what it means to be good.  Divine command theory is really a form of subjectivism where the person whose judgement is relevant is God.


Russ Schaefer-Landau argued against divine command theory (claim 2) along these lines:

The gods either have good reason to will the way they do or they do not

If the gods have no good reason to will the way they do then their view is arbitrary

If the gods have good reason to will the way they do then something is good due to those reasons not due to the gods’ will. Therefore, we would be looking at case 1 in the Euthyphro dilemma not 2.

It follows that if divine command theory is true then morality is arbitrary.


The same argument would seem to apply to all relativism/subjectivist claims of morality.  We can simply exchange “the gods” for “Joe” or “western culture” or whatever subject the subjectivist/relativist thinks defines what is moral.


So the questions for this blog are does the argument work against all forms of subjectivism or relativism?


I still believe the problems I outlined in an earlier blog pose bigger problems for subjectivism and other forms of anti-realist morality, but it seems to me that anything that saves the relativist from this problem would save divine command theory as well.  And to the extent this argument sinks divine command theory it sinks other forms of relativism/subjectivism as well.


It seems that William Lane Craig has a view that saves divine command theory from this argument but it would not save subjectivism/relativism if the relevant subject was a person.

Problem of Evil Answered with Logic and Scripture


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The problem of evil is a common objection to Christianity and with some good reason.  I would even admit that certain evils in the world seem to me to amount to some evidence against the Christian God.   But I think the evidence can be shown to be fairly weak when looked at logically and with the aid of scripture.


When explaining my view on this problem I always start with this question:  Does God’s omnipotence mean he can violate the rules of logic?  If we answer yes then a the problem of evil is not a problem for God because it is a logical problem – and he is not bound by logic.  So let’s say that “omnipotence” of God means something short of breaking the laws of logic.  Once we understand God is so constrained then we see cracks form in the problem of evil.

Knowledge can’t be good and not good.

Ignorance can’t be bad and not bad.

God can’t have us know what evil is and not know what evil is.

God can’t let us be ignorant of evil and not be ignorant of evil.

We can’t know what the consequences of evil are, if there is no evil to be found.

If suffering is the result of evil then can we really know what evil is unless we know the experience of suffering?

So can we know the experience of suffering without experiencing suffering?


And what about the results of good which often are the opposites of suffering – peace, joy etc.?  (there seems no clear cut antonym for all the different aspects of suffering)  Can we know what they are when we don’t understand the opposite?  Can we know what it means to be taller or as tall as without also having an idea of shorter (or not as tall as)?  It seems to me we can’t know these states without knowing something of the opposites.  I can’t understand heat unless I have some concept of lack of heat, i.e., cold.

So if we think Knowledge is good then we might agree that even knowledge of evil is good.  Even if this good is logically linked to our experience of evil.   Now we may think well the good of knowing evil does not outweigh all the suffering evil brings.  God seems to agree.   But nevertheless we would still have to say knowledge is itself a good.  And if we think it is good to allow us to experience all goods then we can’t exclude some goods.  So it does seem there are logical restraints that means some goods entail evil.

So what does this have to do with scripture?

What was that tree God forbade Adam and Eve the fruit of?  Was it an apple tree or a pear tree?  No, it was the fruit of the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”.   In Genesis God commands  “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genesis 2:16-17.  I mean at first that seems a very odd sort of tree, and not one I remember seeing at the arboretum.   I think this should be a sign that the author of the story is not just telling us some literal event from history but is trying to make a different sort of statement about God.    What does it even mean to taste the fruit that comes from the knowledge of evil?  The fruit/result of knowing evil is, as we have said, suffering.   Can we have knowledge of evil unless we know what it produces?  I don’t think so because such knowledge would be warped.  Some things that may be evil might sound pretty good if it weren’t for the suffering it caused.  Knowing evil without knowing suffering is not really knowing evil.  (“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.” Genisis 3:6.)


Someone can’t know suffering without knowing suffering.   If someone says I know what it is like to be burned over 80% of my body – well the only way he could know that is if he was so burned or at least had that experience.  If he didn’t we would say no you actually don’t “know” that kind of suffering.


But this was our decision – not God’s.  He wanted to save us from this fruit.  Are we to think the author just randomly chose the name for that tree or is the author inviting the reader to explore a very deep philosophical issue?  What is “the fruit” of knowing good and evil that we wanted to taste?  When people are so caught up in literal readings that they argue whether the fruit was a pear or an apple my stomach sinks.  They are missing so much.


The text invites us to explore deep ideas about our experiences here in this life and our situation existing in this world as we do.    How can we know good and evil without knowing evil?  And how can we know evil if we can’t experience it?  And how can we experience something that is nowhere to be seen?    So the fruit of knowledge of good and evil implies the experience of evil.  But the Bible expresses that God did not want this for us.  But he also wanted us to be free.


God is portrayed as our parent who loves us.   Every parent understands this tension between wanting our children to avoid pain but also allow them to choose their own path.  Don’t go down that path, but recognizing there is value in letting us learn so giving us autonomy.


We can’t have freedom and not have freedom.

Freedom can’t be good and not be good at the same time.

God can’t have us overcome adversity without us overcoming adversity.

We can’t over come adversity if there is no adversity

Overcoming  adversity can’t be good and not good.

We cannot experience all that is good if we can never experience certain goods.

I can go on and on with logical constraints that imply evil is required for some goods.


But isn’t God overdoing it with all the evil in the world?  In other words we might agree we have to experience some evil and suffering to have certain goods but why so much suffering?   Couldn’t God have done it better?  So how should it have been done?  Well we should expect the suffering should be a finite time.  And of course all our lives are indeed finite – that is we die.    And indeed scripture explains that our life is finite –  because we chose to taste the fruit of the tree.


“22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”  Genesis 3:22-24



Beautiful language expressing that God knew it was best we not live forever in this state that the fruits of this knowledge would bring to us.  God knew that knowledge of good and evil would entail suffering.  Is it a coincidence that death was brought into the world at that time?  Some would say God having death enter the world at that time is really a punishment.  I think the opposite.  He is helping us with the mess we got ourselves in.   Making our suffering here finite is the most loving thing to do.  It is only after the time that we chose to know good and evil that God prevents them from living forever.


Isn’t that what we would do for those we love.  We would say ok I don’t want you to go down that path because it will cause pain.  But if you choose that path of pain, then you will learn, but we would try to limit the pain.   And then we would make our own sacrifices to help those we love get out of the rut and back on the path where evil and its fruit (suffering) is avoided.  Moreover we would want the benefits of our knowledge to be used.  Good and loving relationships can be better appreciated thanks to this knowledge.   That is the story of God and humanity in a nutshell.


I am reminded of a friend in college who said to get a good grade just read the first and last chapters of the book to get the overall point and then memorize a few facts in the middle that you can throw in your test or paper to impress the teacher.  This is close.  Jumping from the first 3 chapters of Genesis and then reading a Gospel will give you a decent idea of Christianity.


Two final notes:

Scripture is not saying knowledge is to be avoided.  Remember the metaphor of a tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the *only* tree we were forbidden to eat from.  “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” Genisis 2.  So only the tree that allows us to know these particular opposites was off limits.  This suggests that any other sort of knowledge (science history etc.) would be good and not have a negative trade off.  It is only this particular tree of knowledge that is off limits.  That fruit logically had to be packed in a can of worms.   Not necessarily the fruits of other knowledge.


Also, notice that God warns of the actions he will take – that they will die.   However, he does not go into detail about why he will take that action or why knowledge of Good and evil will cause so many problems.  Of course, for any such considerations to be appropriately understood by them he would need to give them knowledge of good and evil – exactly that which he was trying to avoid.

Answering the Many Gods Problem


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One of the common questions Christians run into is this:  Even if you think God does exist how could we possibly know the Christian God is the correct one?  This might come up when addressing Pascals wager but it comes up in other contexts as well.   They will sometimes then go about naming every type of god or spirit that they can find on the internet. (Let’s call these hitherto unknown gods “the gods of the internet”).  This appears to be an invitation to start wasting much more time than this argument should take.   It also seems like an attempt to overwhelm us.   Don’t be waste time or be overwhelmed.  This question can actually be a great invitation to explore how quite a bit of evidence supports the Christian God.


If we get to the point that for whatever reason we accept we should believe there is a God, but we need to which god it is, then we should consider “good reasons” to believe one way or another.  As I indicated before, “good reasons” to believe something generally fall into one of three categories.  1) It is theoretically rational to believe (ie. There is evidence that the belief is true.); 2) It is pragmatically rational to believe (that is, weighing the consequences of being wrong or right on this issue favors belief); and 3) It is logically consistent to believe.  With this criteria we can start comparing the gods/religions and see which one wins.


What we should not do is try to talk about some imagined “burden of proof” and then try to think if the evidence for this or that god “meets the burden” or does not.  This is not a rational way to choose between multiple different exclusive alternatives.  (You can argue for exclusivity later.  I won’t do it here.)  This is because when we are choosing between multiple exclusive choices we do not necessarily choose the one that is more likely than not true.  It is rational to choose the one that is simply best supported by good reasons even if it is not more likely than not true.  In other words if at the end of the day we say the Islamic God has a 15% chance of being true the Jewish (non-christian) God has 30% of being true the Christian God has a 31% chance of being true and several other gods add up to the remaining 24% we can still say we should choose the Christian God.  Of course pragmatic and logical considerations can come into play but to the extent those are equal then it would be rational to choose the Christian God even though we only give the Christian God a 31% chance and not over a 50% chance of being correct.


Getting back to proper reasoning one thing rational people should do in determining whether to believe in one God versus a different God would be to compare the evidence for each.   Of course I think pragmatic rationality can play a role in this as well, but lets set that aside for now and focus on theoretic rationality.   What sort of thing would even be “evidence” for a particular God?


Well lots of things could be evidence for God for different people.  If the atheist refuses to believe anything could be evidence for God then ok you are probably dealing with a mind so closed no amount of rational discussion will help.  If that is the case maybe you could use pragmatic reasons.    But let’s say they are at least willing to agree some things could be evidence, what would evidence of God be?


Miracles are the thing asked for as proof of God most often.  I know it is what I would want.  Asking for “signs” (the bible’s term for miracles) seems to have been around since at least Judaism itself.  The Gospel of John couldn’t be more clear that he is relating the signs in his Gospel for this very purpose.  He flat out says:


“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name. “

John 20:30-31

So the God that offers the best evidence of miracles would seem to me to be the main consideration if not the dispositive one.  What sort of evidence do we have of miracles supporting Zeus or the God of Islam or the Christian God or the other “gods of the internet”?


People may have had a miracle in their own life (or the life of someone they know well and trust) which can serve as evidence.  And considering the application of such an event would seem to be very rational thing to do.  But what if you don’t think you, or anyone close to you, has had a miracle happen or even if it did, you don’t know that it points to one God as opposed to another?  Then I think we should look at history and how such miracles are evidence for a particular religion.


As far as the miracles actually being proof of one God or another.  It should be clear the miracles done by Jesus himself would support the Christian God.  As it would be clear that miracles done by Mohamed would support the Islamic God.  But even if we grant that lightening striking a particular ship at sea is a miracle, why should we think it is proof of Thor?  So we would need to consider that when looking at the evidence.


Now then we have different historical miracle claims that are assigned to different religions.  How do we analyze the competing historical claims?  I suggest we use the same analysis historians generally use.  Bart Ehrman gives several criteria that historians consider when evaluating whether something in history occurred.  Using this criteria seems like a good way to evaluate different miracle claims.


Dr. Ehrman says these are the typical criteria historians use in evaluating historical claims:

1)            Multiple sources


2)            Preferably Independent sources


3)            Non biased sources


4)            Contextual credibility


5)            Close in time to the events


6)            No contradictions/internally consistent


They seem to be rational criteria.  So I would suggest that people when considering what God is most likely “the true God” take these criteria into account in evaluating the various historical miracle claims.


So, for example, let’s take the “close in time to events.”  Sometimes people argue that those who wrote the new testament did not themselves see Jesus.  They at best could have seen elderly eye witnesses who saw the event.  Ok Ill grant that for argument’s sake.  But now let’s compare that to Zeus.  Who saw Zeus perform a miracle and how long was it between the person who saw Zeus and the person writing about the event?   As we start to go through the list of criteria we may wish the Christian God was better supported but when we compare it to gods like Thor or the various gods of the internet well we see that the Christian God really does do quite well.   Jesus performed many miracles proving his religion.


If for example we have records that say someone on a clear day said “Let Thor’s power Strike this ship!” and then the ship was struck by lightening, ok, I would agree that would indeed be some evidence of Thor.  But how do such accounts hold up under historical criteria?   Who claims to have seen it and  when was it recorded in relation to the event, are there multiple independent sources? etc etc.   Encourage your atheist interlocutor to rationally compare these various gods of the internet against Christ’s multiple miracles using this criteria.  Let them decide for themselves whether the Christian God is the most rational God to believe in.   Let them see for themselves that there is good reason to believe in the Christian God.


I think that any rational person who actually takes the question of what God is the true God, seriously and pursues the matter in a rational way will almost certainly end up with only a few Gods if not one. Whether a rational person will be left with 4 or 2 or 1 well I am not arguing that right now but clearly there will not be this bewildering number of gods.


So just by considering the theoretical rationality we are likely to narrow down the number of Gods dramatically.  We should of course also consider practical rationality.  This might or might not further sort out some Gods.  And then you have the more narrow questions of deciding between the few remaining Gods and in the case of Christianity you have to sort out all the different denominations.  And of course you should do this in a rational way as well.   But we can leave that for another blog.



“Love” Versus Selfish “Emotional Empathy”


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When I speak with atheists about morality they tend to want to talk about Empathy rather than Love.  Maybe empathy seems more “scientific” or exact and, of course, it is less Christian sounding.    It is true that “Love” has many different meanings and the Christian view of Love, agape, is only one sense of the term.  Here I will again offer the Aquinas definition as being good enough for our purposes:

“To love is to will the good of another.”


Empathy also has a few different meanings.  Generally, it seems that there are about 3 general types taking shape in the literature:  Emotional (aka, affective), Cognitive, and Compassionate.


“Cognitive empathy” is the ability to figure out what someone else will feel.


“Emotional empathy” is the one found especially lacking in sociopaths.   Emotional empathy is actually feeling the feelings of others.  With this empathy our brains actually fire in the areas as though we are directly feeling a pain when see someone else being hurt.


“Compassionate empathy” is mostly marked off by including a desire to help when someone is suffering.  It may start out from the emotional empathy but it then brings about a will to act.    In short Compassionate empathy basically adds Christian love to the equation.  And indeed, we can do exercises called, unsurprisingly “loving-kindness” meditation that may improve our compassionate empathy.


So what should we make of these three types of empathy from a moral perspective?


As Christians we are called to love each other and compassionate empathy in the literature is what is most closely associated with that term as understood by Aquinas.  Compassionate empathy adds willing the good of another into the mental state, which as we know is basically Christian love.    Love is a root, if not the root, of Christian Morality, so yes, I am all for that.


Cognitive empathy seems fine enough just like any sort of knowledge.  It might have practical benefits in helping us serve others.  However, it is also the type of empathy that allows sociopaths to manipulate others as they seem more adept at this type of empathy than they are at the other two.  But, on the whole, I would say simply having knowledge is not itself morally meritorious.   Like all knowledge I think it is good to have this knowledge but not necessarily morally good.


But what about the emotional empathy?  That is the form of empathy where you feel what someone else feels.    It is the form of empathy I think most scientists would refer to, unless they specify otherwise.  (And from this point forward I will just refer to emotional empathy as empathy.)   This is the empathy that most clearly separates the sociopath (who is lacking in this form of empathy) from the normal person.  Sociopaths are, of course, traditionally seen as morally deficient people.    But our new scientific understandings of emotional empathy makes it tricky from a moral perspective.     Let’s dig deeper into what science tells us about this type of empathy.



Emotional Empathy is a feeling we get.  And as such it is not necessarily meritorious or culpable in itself.  It can help us to love, and to that extent it can be beneficial.   But there are some important points to make.

Empathy Mitigates our Good Deeds by Making them Self Centered

First it seems that emotional empathy makes many moral actions, well, less “selfless.”


“As kids, we are told not to hurt others, and we are told not to speak with our mouth full. Kids quickly come to feel very different about violating these two types of rules. Empathy is what makes the difference. Each time you hurt someone, that person’s distress becomes your pain, and you start to associate your vicarious pain with harming others. Violence then starts to feel intrinsically bad. Helping others, on the other hand, makes you feel their happiness, and will start to feel good.”


When we avoid hurting others due to empathy, in a real sense, we are actually avoiding hurting ourselves.  When we bring others joy we are bringing ourselves joy.  To the extent we have more empathy we are acting in our own interest when we avoid hurting others.  Sociopaths do not have this pain when they hurt others so they are not restrained by their own self centered desires.


The very same parts of the brain can be triggered by emotional empathy that are triggered when we are directly hurt.  As explained by Bloom in his book “Against Empathy”:


“I feel your pain” isn’t just a gooey metaphor; it can be made neurologically literal: Other people’s pain really does activate the same brain area as your own pain, and more generally, there is neural evidence for a correspondence between self and other.”


“For example, meta-analyses on empathy for pain studies have revealed that a portion of the anterior insula and a specific part of the anterior cingulate cortex were consistently activated, both during the experience of pain as well as when vicariously feeling with the suffering of others.”


So in effect Empathy is like God giving us a shock every time we hurt others.  But some people – sociopaths do not receive this corrective or it is much duller.  To the extent this is why we act morally better than sociopaths I dare say we are not more moral at all.  When our actions are simply driven by our own desire to avoid pain or discomfort we should not claim the moral high ground.  Can this empathy transition into love?  It seems it can but until we get full blown love and remain in simple emotional empathy – avoiding our own emotional pain or guilt seems to cut against what we should consider meritorious intentions.


Now to be clear I am not saying there is something wrong with acting in our self interest.   We should act in our own interest all things being equal.  But to the extent we are acting in self interest we shouldn’t think we can properly claim all the merit of acting selflessly for someone else.    And it is that concern for others that we traditionally find most meritorious from a moral perspective.

Empathy Spreads Suffering

The other problem for some is that empathy would seem something we want to avoid if we adopt a morality that focuses on avoiding suffering.   Empathy seems much more poignant when I see someone suffer than when I see someone celebrate.   I share some joy but I think on the whole I would rather not have any empathy experiences as opposed to several empathetic experiences where I share extreme pain or agony coupled with experiences where someone undergoes great joys.    Is it perhaps that envy is cutting into my joy of seeing others experience joy in a way that the empathy relating to pain seems undiluted?   Research supports the conclusion that negative empathy is stronger than positive empathy:

“Empathy is the ability to perceive and react to another person’s emotions. Much attention has been paid to empathy regarding negative emotions, but little is known about how (or if) we respond to positive emotions in the same way. Now, a new study reports that joy may be harder to share than distress.”


But even if, contrary to current research, positive and negative empathy were to balance out or even if empathy of positive emotions was stronger we would still need to ask if empathy of suffering was good.  That seems problematic if you want to say empathy and reducing suffering are both important.  Empathy with someone’s suffering increases the suffering in the world.  If we all see a horrible event where someone suffers pain and we have strong empathy we just magnified the amount of suffering in the world.    You have the person who is actually suffering directly and then the suffering all of us empathic people feel!  Whereas if we were all sociopaths well the person suffering would still suffer but that would be the extent of it.


As a Christian I certainly don’t view morality as mostly about avoiding pain/suffering so I do view empathy as a good springboard to love.  But I think those who want to view morality in more simplistic terms – as systems to avoid suffering they have a real problem.   The notions that suffering is a brain state and morality should be geared to avoid those brain states has a very hard case to say empathy with others suffering is morally good.


I imagine their argument will be along these lines:  Empathy makes people not want to hurt others so less people will be directly hurt by others if we all have empathy.  I would concede that may be true.  I think it would still be mitigated by laws that even selfish sociopaths would want because they protect them as well as others.  Laws would reduce the harm of sociopaths just like they do now.


The real problem for a morality that wants to be based on reducing suffering and yet wants to keep empathy is natural and unintentional suffering caused by natural disasters and diseases etc.  If you are all about reducing suffering it seems difficult to argue that multiplying all that suffering to everyone else with empathy is worth the slight decrease in direct harm caused by others.   It just seems that a morality based on reducing suffering would want to root out empathy.  This is one reason why we can easily think of counterfactuals to moral systems that claim to be all about reducing suffering as I presented here:


Again, empathy is contrary to moral systems like Sam Harris’s that seem to want to claim morality is all about suffering and brain states of suffering.  I of course do not believe morality works that way.  I am not thrilled with suffering either – but the goal is love not just the ending of suffering.  So to the extent suffering (through empathy) leads to love then it is ok and even desirable.

I go more into the problems with Harris’s view here:


In sum, to the extent emotional empathy removes the selfless intentions of our actions and increases suffering it can be problematic for some moral systems.  Love on the other hand seems morally desirable all the time in just about every moral system.

Love Versus Envy


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Love is the basis of Christianity and so it is only fitting that a Christian should consider what it is and what it is not.  In this blog I will compare love and what I think is the opposite of love – envy.  In the next blog I will talk about how love has important differences with empathy.

As Christians we know that craving anything before God is sin.  Wealth is one of those things that can lead to sin.   It, however, is not always intrinsically wrong to have property.  Christ wants us to give to the poor.  If giving them items caused them to be in sin, he would not ask us to do that.  Moreover, the fact that we are commanded not to steal suggests that owning property is part of God’s plan and can be healthy.

If I tell you that country A has a wider wealth gap then country B many people would say that, in itself, is reason to think country B is better.    I’m not one of them.  If people in A are all wealthier then all of those in Country B I would rather live in A, even if I was at the low end of that gap.   I would rather have more in absolute terms in country A even if relative to others in my own country I had less.

I know lots of people who have much more money than I do and I am glad they are in a situation where they can have that.  Envy has actually been one sin that has not usually been a problem for me.  But I do notice that my view is not shared by all.  Some people do think inequality of wealth is itself a problem.   Some people would rather have less themselves in absolute terms if it meant those around them had less as well.   This seems to be a lose/lose option based on envy.

Envy is specially targeted in the tenth commandment.   Envy is also a sin that is especially useful in fueling political and social movements.  Envy of the Jews has lead to antisemitism.  Socialism in particular uses envy to fuel it’s movements.  See for example the Kulaks, and the Ukrainian Holodomor.  Most politicians today do not talk about “the 1%” because they want to express how happy they are for the advantages they have.

Certainly I am not saying that all advantaged people “earned” their advantages.  That is obviously not true.  Some people are born smart or wealthy and this was obviously not “earned.”   However, being born smart or wealthy is not itself an immoral action either.   Don’t we wish we were born smart and wealthy – and good looks would have been nice too while we are at it.   Is it not due to our love that we want our children to have advantages such as good friends, wisdom, family, and yes, at least, some material possessions?


Christ commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’

Matthew 22:36-40.


The Catechism quotes Saint Thomas Aquina’s short but effective definition of love:

To love is to will the good of another.

Now let’s look at Merriam Webster’s definition of Envy:

painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage


I think this helps us understand the direct opposition between the envious heart and what Jesus commands.  Instead of rejoicing that others have the advantages we also want, instead we react negatively toward others receiving the goods we want.

Again I am not saying we need to claim every advantage was earned.  And indeed we should agree that some advantages are not only unearned but are unjust.  If someone cheats someone else out of their property justice dictates they should not keep it.   But we need to make sure we are not rationalizing and fueling our resentment of others having more when they did nothing immoral to get what they have.  That would be envy, the opposite of love.

We can be envious even when someone did earn their advantage.  And as for the unearned, if some people were born lucky, like we wish we were born, do we rejoice for them, or are we resentful?  If we are resentful, obviously, we are not loving them as we love ourselves.

It seems to me that envy has as much claim to be the antithesis of love as hatred does.  I may hate many things about someone as they are now but still hope good for them.  Just as I can hate many things about myself and still hope good for myself.  But envy directly fights against willing the goods for others that we will for ourselves.

Morality: Problems with Divine Command, Subjectivism, and Anti-realism


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Divine Command Theory is the view that right and wrong is simply whatever God decides it is.  As Socrates asked in the Euthyphro Dilemma:

1) is an act pleasing to the gods because it is good,

or rather

2) is an act good because it is pleasing to the gods?


The Divine command theory says 2 is correct.   An act is good because it is pleasing to God.   Whatever is God’s will to be good, is good.  That is what it means to be good.  Divine command theory is really a form of subjectivism where the person whose judgement is relevant is God.


Russ Schaefer-Landau argued against divine command theory (claim 2) along these lines:


  1. God either has good reason to will the way he does or he does not
  2. If God has no good reason to will the way he does then his view is arbitrary
  3. If God has good reason to will the way he does then something is good due to those reasons not due to God’s will. Therefore, we would be looking at case 1 in the Euthyphro dilemma not 2.


It follows that if divine command theory is true then morality is arbitrary.


I actually think the problem with divine command theory runs even deeper.  (And the problems equally apply to all forms of subjectivism/relativism)    I think that if we define moral good as whatever God (or some other person or group or entity) decide is good then the very notion of having a “good reason” to believe an act to be moral or immoral is unworkable.  The issue is dealt with by subjectivists when we consider the problems they have with moral progress.  Moral goodness on the subjectivist view is whatever the relevant person or group decides is morally good.  This decision need not accord with objective reality because under subjectivism morality itself is not based in objective morality.     Divine command theory seems to be just a particular form of moral subjectivism where the relevant person or group is God.


On moral subjectivism we make moral progress every time the relevant person or group changes their mind.  If they go from thinking slavery (however we want to define it) is sometimes permissible to thinking it is always wrong then it is moral progress.   Why is this moral progress?  Well they used to think wrongly and now they are correct.  They are by definition always correct in whatever they now believe about morality because their beliefs define what morality is.   They used to think slavery was sometimes permissible but since their current view defines what is moral and they now think slavery is never moral they now hold the correct view.


Of course, if they then change their mind again, and again start thinking slavery is sometimes morally permissible, that would again be moral progress!  Why?  Because, the current beliefs of that person (or group) defines what is moral.  So now that they believe slavery is sometimes morally permissible then it is by definition morally permissible.  Therefore they were in error, in the bad old days, when they thought slavery was always wrong.


So to that extent anything that causes the relevant person/God/group to change their mind is always good in the sense it leads to this vacuous sort of moral progress.  I hope that seems more distasteful than satisfying.  Is there any other sense that a subjectivist could have a “good reason” to hold a belief about morality?  I think the prospects are dim here is why.


As I explained in an earlier blog there are generally 2 different types of good reasons to believe something– theoretical reasons having to do with evidence – and pragmatic reasons which is more focused on consequences.   I agree that logic can also properly constrain a subjectivists beliefs – e.g., they should not lead logical contradiction.  So that might be a third type of good reason.  (Do these three forms of reasons account for all good reasons for belief?  Feel free to comment below.)

But logical contradiction isn’t really going to rule out much in terms of bad reasoning about morality on its own.  Any detail of difference can be pointed to in order to avoid logical contradictions in moral views.  That killing did not happen at precisely 10:27 Am Central time at that exact location.  Therefore my believe that this killing is immoral does not logically contradict my belief this other killing was moral.   Edit: I address the problem of logic being a good reason for subjective beliefs here.


To really get to the heart of the matter we need to go beyond just logical contradiction and look at whether there can be good theoretical, and/or practical reasons for an anti-realist to believe a moral claim.

Can there be good theoretical reasons to hold subjective moral beliefs?

So lets address whether there can be good theoretical reason for the subjectivist to believe something is moral.  That is, is there evidence the subjectivist might use to embrace a moral belief?   Because morality, according to the subjectivist, is not based on objective reality but rather subjective it is impossible that there is good evidence to say something is moral. Let me explain further:


Let’s say on the divine theory it so happens that racism displeases God.  So on this theory racism is evil.  And saying it is evil is the same as saying it is God’s will we avoid it.  Now someone might say well God has good reasons for that being his will.  Racism causes all sorts of problems and pain etc.  And we may nod along with some of those reasons.  But here is the problem.  It doesn’t matter what the reasons are if we are going to define what is good by whatever pleases God.  If they actually led God to his current view then they are all good reasons – to the extent they led to the current view which by definition is always right.  So maybe none of the reasons we think racism is wrong are the reasons it displeases God.  Maybe God used to think racism was good but then he was kicked in the head by a mule, or he believed that his stock portfolio would increase in value if he changed his tune or he did some tasseography and the tea leaves told him racism was wrong so he just went with that.


Now normally we would think well I am glad God now says racism is wrong but those aren’t really good reasons to reject racism.  But this notion of good or bad reasons to believe something is just our attachment to a realist view of morality.  We think racism is wrong because of things that have to do with reality outside of God’s opinion.  But that is not how it works in Divine command theory – or any form of subjectivism.  God’s opinion decides what is in fact good or bad.  So his current view is always the correct view because that is how the correct view is defined.   It is not based on objective reality so our normal notions of saying whether a reason is a “good reason” or a “bad reason” no longer apply at all.

To better understand my point let’s consider what good and bad theoretical reasons for believing an event that occurs in objective reality.  Lets use history as an example.

If someone believes Russia and Germany reached an agreement to divide up Eastern Eurpope before World War II, we might agree because based on what we read about the Molotov-Ribbontrop pact it seems that is likely true.  But what if they say no that is not why they believe it.  They believe it based on tasseography. (again based on pattern the tea leaves left in their mug) Ugh another tasseographer! (blame Richard Joyce for teaching me about this craft)


But why is that a bad reason to believe?  We may not be able to show such a belief contradicts other views they hold.  But that is not the problem.  The problem is that reason has no connection with the reality of Russia actually having an agreement with Germany before World War II.  The information we read about the Ribbontrop Molotov pact does in fact have a connection to the objective reality of that agreement.  That is we think the history book (or Wikipedia article) traces back to information and documents used by the people actually in leadership positions in Russia and Germany and this connection with objective reality is what makes it a good reason to believe.


If the Wikipedia article or book was a complete fabrication made up by some crazy person who decided to write down a dream, then the Wikipedia article would not be a good reason to believe there was an agreement.  Why does the evidence or reason to believe have to track/link with objective reality?    Because the claim “that Russia and Germany reached an agreement to divide Eastern Europe before WW2” is a claim about what happened in objective reality.    If the claim we are considering is not itself one about objective reality then it is far from clear why any reasons to believe it must have any connection with objective reality.    So our normal theoretical reasoning as to what constitutes a “good reason” to believe something no longer applies when we are talking about anti-realist morality positions.

Can there Be Good Practical Reasons Supporting a Subjectivist Moral Belief?

So what about pragmatic reasons?  Are there any good pragmatic reasons that can lead a subjectivist to believe one action is moral as opposed to another?   I certainly agree that practical reasons can be a good reason to believe something.  Indeed I think there are good practical reasons to believe in God as that belief will lead us to live a moral life.  But again I am understanding morality as a moral realist does.  That is a very different thing than what a moral subjectivist believes.  Here  and here are earlier blogs where I talk about some of the differences:


If you have certain goals that the belief will serve then you may have pragmatic reasons to believe.   So for example if believing you can beat cancer were to really improve your chances of beating cancer then that would be a good pragmatic reason to believe you can beat cancer.   This practical reason is independent of theoretical good reasons based on the evidence that you actually will beat cancer.


But it is hard to understand how this could apply in the case of subjective morality.   How would calling something moral actually lead to more rational action/belief?   I think Professor Shaffer-Landaus point comes into particular focus here.  If we say we want to believe this conduct is moral because it will lead to happiness or less pain for myself or others, why would adding the claim that therefor this is “moral” add anything?  Why not just say I want to believe I should act this way because I  want happiness and less pain.  Should the label that this action is subjectively moral motivate us to act that way more then the underlying reasons?  Certainly I would say yes if we were considering an objective morality.  But when we are well aware that morality is a label we subjectively assign then what is the point of even using that language.  To the extent it motivates beyond the underlying reasons it would seem to do nothing but distort motivation beyond the proper reasons.


It would seem that since we rule out evidentiary reasons and objective reality then we are only left with motivating reasons.  But then to the extent the morality label adjusts the motivation it would seem only to distort it in a way not supported by the other reasons.    The nihilist/error theorist would seem to accept the same reasons and simply cut out the morality talk as to the extent the morality label does anything it would distort the motivation beyond the underlying reasons – which would lead to less rational action not more.


But there are two more problems with coming up with good pragmatic reasons.  One is that saying what we want is not really in our control rationally speaking.  It would be great if it was.  But even though I know certain foods are bad for me I still want them.  The notion that our wants are driving the ship is sort of like admitting we are giving away the keys to matters beyond our control.   Although on this point I would agree the more argument is needed.  Just because I can’t control all my desires that does not mean I can’t control any of them.  But then again what is driving my will to desires some wants and not others – if not beliefs about objective morality?  Just other wants and desires?  If so then it would seem we just say we act this way for those reasons and adding the label of moral or immoral to actions seems superfluous.


The second problem arises because fundamentally morality involves ultimate goals.    Morality is generally understood as the end good in itself not something we do so that we can become faster stronger smarter or even pain free etc.  To the extent I wanted to do action X because it would gave me a leg up in my career or to relieve pain, does not mean action X was moral.   It might be moral or it might not.  But an action serving some alternate goal is usually seen as an independent reason to it being moral.  Yes if your boss dies you may end up in his corner office but that does not mean killing him is less immoral.  We should be motivated to do good for the sake of doing good.   So to say some ulterior motives are a good pragmatic reason to say something is moral seems contrary to our fundamental understanding of how morality works.


The moral person does not act morally solely because doing so will help her pursue other goals.  To be sure the same act might be moral and it may help us achieve other goals.  But that is a coincidence that can go either way.  Sometimes acting morally can defeat those other goals but we still should act morally.   Morality is the end itself it is not the means to an end.


Thus in the end I think Divine Command theory as well as Subjectivism and other anti-realist views of morality generally will have difficulty explaining any sort of “good reason” to believe something is moral.   The whole anti-realism view rules what we normally think of as good theoretical reasons to believe and the combination of core concepts of “anti-realism” and “morality” also rules out the possibility that there are any good pragmatic reasons to believe a moral claim.   Thus the very notion of an anti-realist having a “good reason” to believe a moral claim is ruled out.

Sam Harris Worst Possible Misery for Everyone

In essence, Sam Harris says the worst possible misery for everyone is bad – actually the worst.  He also says suffering involves brain states and we can study brain states and learn how to avoid this.  And he seems to think this is really all we need to know and we can then scientifically establish the most moral world.       This may seem straight forward and fits well with his view of morality.  But here I would like to show how his view is drastically different than our traditional view of morality good and evil/ right and wrong.

Here is a link where he states part of the above:

(Start about 2:15)


First note that although the WPME  is ”bad” it is not necessarily immoral.  That is it is not necessarily morally bad.    Natural disasters can cause horrendous suffering but we don’t normally say hurricanes are immoral.  It is only when a human makes a deliberate action that we normally say something is immoral.   Sam Harris seems to make no distinction.  This may not be an oversight bur rather due to his atypical view on free will and determinism.    To the extent an entity  has no choice in what happens we typically do not assign blame.  An event from my childhood sort of stuck with me and illustrates this point.


When I was a kid I would play sports with lots of different kids in my neighborhood.   I remember I was playing basketball with a sheltered neighbor who clearly didn’t understand the double dribble rule.  He would dribble grab the ball with both hands and then dribble the other way.  But that is not the most memorable part of that game.  At one point he shot and the ball, it bounced off the bottom of the rim, and immediately hit him in the face. The boy was upset and he ran after the basketball and yelled “bad basketball!” and smacked the ball with his hand.  At that point even as a child I knew his ignorance was more profound than those concerning the rules of basketball.


Why is blaming the basketball odd?  One big reason is that the ball has no will and so it did not willingly hit the boy in the face.  It wasn’t morally bad even though it may have caused the boy some pain/misery.  Determinists may have some problems explaining how people are not just like that basketball with no will being jostled around by outside forces.


Obviously, this is a big difference in how many Christians view morality as opposed to atheists like Harris. (although certainly some Christian thinkers have famously rejected free will as well – eg. Martin Luther).   Now atheists either agree with Harris on determinism or they do not.  I’m not going to try to address all the problems determinism causes for morality here and so I focus on the latter group.


If they don’t agree then they almost certainly would agree that horrible suffering can happen even though nothing morally bad happened at all.  So although they would agree that the worst suffering for everyone is bad it would not be at all clear that it is morally bad.    To establish immorality we would want to see some sort of intentionality – or mens rea as I discussed in my last blog.   Those who reject determinism are typically not going to be inclined to say suffering caused by inanimate entities involves immorality.   So that is one problem but it leads to another related problem for Harris.  We usually think that getting enjoyment from other peoples suffering is itself morally bad.  But this seems to  directly contradict his most fundamental statement.


Consider, the possibility that everyone but one sadistic dishonest person is in this worst misery.  Pick your Nazi to be this person (Ill choose Himmler) and imagine this person is really quite happy because by his deception he caused everyone to be in this most horrendous misery possible.  He could have very easily made it so we could all be happy including himself but he made certain deliberate choices to put the rest of us all in misery.  But he does get sadistic pleasure from knowing his own deception lead to all of our misery and his brain scan would prove this pleasure.  Are we really making moral progress?   It seems Harris is committed to the view that the holocaust wasn’t so bad since Himmler liked it. I think adding Himmler and his pleasure at how his deception made us miserable makes it morally worse.   Harris might say “I don’t know what I am talking about.”  But that is hardly convincing to someone who thinks this through.   I gave another problem for people with this utilitarian view of morality based on misery versus pleasure here:


What do I think Harris is missing?  I think he is failing to understand that reason things are morally bad is due to our decisions.  Lots of people might die in a hurricane and that is bad.  But it is not morally bad that they die.  Things get morally bad when we willfully take actions that are evil.  It is certainly distressing and sad to see hundreds of corpses old and young alike after a natural disaster but there is no moral outrage and revulsion that we have when we see what happened in the holocaust.    We don’t yell at the hurricane “how could you?”  But we do yell that at the Nazis.


What is this all about?  It is based on the idea that we as humans have a right and wrong way to act.  That is we have purposes in our life and the holocaust was against that purpose and violated our nature.  That nature is best understood by understanding that God gave us life and God made us in his image and so we have no right to take that life.


But before we leave this topic I will at least touch on yet another problem with his reasoning.

He says the only assumption we need to make is that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad.  Is that the only assumption we need to make? Can we actually move on from there to anything worthwhile?   It is sort of like saying the worst imaginable soccer team is so bad that every single time the ball is touched by either team it results in a goal against us.   So as a coach that is the only assumption we need to make and then we can move on from there.  I’m not sure how that really gets us anywhere on how to play soccer.  Avoiding that situation at all costs might mean we don’t actually win we just keep everyone on defense.  If there is no afterlife killing every conscious being would seem the surest way to avoid his bad situation where everyone is in the worse misery imaginable.  But does saying it is bad to for everyone to be in the worst misery imaginable really tell us much of anything useful at all about morality?   It seems precious little.   Many more assumptions are needed.


I mean most people understand that to love someone is to make yourself vulnerable to pain.  To develop a trusting relationship means you are making yourself open to the pain of betrayal.  So do we avoid this worst situation by being as unfeeling as possible? Being unfeeling will certainly help us avoid the worst imaginable misery right?   But does morality call us to do more?  Of course it does.


So I think his worst possible misery scenario is both incorrect and unhelpful.


Mens Rea and Moral Realism


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In my blog I try to use terms in a way that fairly closely tracks with how philosophers in meta-ethics use the terms.  I want the readers of this blog to be able to join in the conversation.  Thus one of my earlier blogs sets out to explain what I still consider the basic 4 meta-ethical beliefs as understood by most philosophers.

The way I use terms there and elsewhere in my blog  will be in agreement with what I consider main stream meta-ethicist’s like Russ Shaefer Landau, who among other things is the founder and editor of the periodical Oxford Studies in Metaethics,  and Richard Joyce whose clear writings on meta-ethics has likely lead to Stanford wanting him to author several articles in their online encyclopedia regarding meta-ethics.

But often times the edges of these philosophical terms can get a bit frayed.  This is the nature of philosophy.  The issue I want to discuss here is one that I find often causes some confusion regarding the moral realist position.  To quote Richard Joyce

“Traditionally, to hold a realist position with respect to X is to hold that X exists in a mind-independent manner (in the relevant sense of “mind-independence”)”

I want to discuss that issue of the “relevant sense of ‘mind independence’” and suggest that some legal terms may actually help us understand what “the relevant sense” is.  Joyce briefly discusses this issue in the above article and I agree with what he says, but I also think using some legal terms can help people understand the issue.    So lets introduce the problem by considering two cases:

Case 1) During a play someone thought they were firing blanks when they aimed a gun and fired at an innocent person. But there were real bullets in the gun and the innocent person died.

Case 2) During a play a person believed there were real bullets in the gun and there were real bullets in the gun. The person shot an innocent person intentionally causing her death.

Certainly, we draw moral distinctions between situation 1 and situation 2.  In the law we traditionally call this mens rea. Which can be translated from the Latin as “guilty mind.”  Traditionally in order to be culpable of a crime we need to prove two things, Actus Reus (a guilty act) and Mens Rea (guilty mind).

“Actus Reus Non Facit Reum Nisi Mens Sit Rea”  “The act itself does not constitute guilt unless done with a guilty intent.”

Now this common sense position is something moral realists certainly can agree with.  Certainly Christian moral realists would take this view.   Moral realists who reject free will  (like Sam Harris)  may have some difficulty here, but that is for a different blog.  For now I want to discuss how a moral realist can believe an accident is not as culpable/immoral as intentional actions.

However, we should recognize that these cases do demonstrate the morality of an action is not completely mind independent – in all senses.    So the mind of the person committing the action being considered moral (or not) can be relevant to the question of whether it is moral or not moral.  Then in what sense is the morality of the action a mind independent fact?

Consider that the state of mind of the person who did the shooting was itself a fact.  If the after the second case occurred the shooter said “at the time I fired I believed the gun had blanks in it.”  His statement about his belief would be factually incorrect.   He did believe it had real bullets and he is likely lying about what he believed at the time.   It would still be factually incorrect if he later somehow really came to believe he always believed they were blanks – say through a brain injury or however.  Even if everyone believed that at the time of the murder he thought the gun had blanks – it would not change the fact that he did believe they were real bullets and he did intentionally kill the person.  In the second scenario he believed the gun had real bullets and that is an objective fact that will not change depending on people’s later points of view.  The fact that he knew there were real bullets in the gun and he intended to kill the victim are a relevant facts in our consideration of whether his action was in fact immoral.

Let me introduce two more legal terms that I think can help clarify this matter.  One is called the “totality of circumstances” and the other is “all relevant facts.”   These terms help us to envision a set of facts as they occurred in history.   Here the actor’s state of mind (mens rea) is a relevant fact that makes up part of the totality of circumstances that should be considered when we decide if action was moral or not.  But once the totality of circumstances relevant to the question of morality is established the moral realist would say they determine whether the action was moral or not and our opinions no longer effect the truth of the matter.

Can moral realists have disputes about what is a relevant fact?  Yes.  Do you have all of the relevant facts that would make up the totality of circumstances necessary to answer whether something is moral or not?  Sometimes.  I would point out that morality is very much like tallness.  We tend to acknowledge that somethings are more evil or good than others.  Nevertheless, I doubt we as humans ever have the full knowledge we need to accurately determine the exact culpability of any action.  How immoral is someone who kills someone due to an accident while negligently driving a car while drunk?  Is it more immoral than when someone negligently drives drunk but luckily makes it home without killing anyone?  Etc.   A moral realist may not be able to fully sort out the exact degree of moral culpability here but they can still say the person who deliberately ran an innocent person over with their car is likely more culpable.    Of course, this does not mean I am not a moral realist just like the fact that I can not say exactly how many millimeters tall my grandfather was at the time he died means I do not think he was a certain height at the time he died.   And, of course, it doesn’t mean he was as many millimeters tall as we decide he was by virtue of our deciding that.

So in sum, when we consider all the relevant facts in the totality of circumstances, we can try to judge whether an action is immoral (or not) but we do not think our judgement after the event actually effects whether the action was in fact moral.   No persons after the fact judgments will ever effect whether an action was in fact moral or not at the time it occurred.  Unlike the subjectivist the moral realist thinks these “after the fact” judgments are irrelevant to the truth.

Now let’s talk about what are the “relevant facts.”   Of course, there are many disagreements here.  But one in particular really ties in with this topic.  Is it relevant that the person really thought he was acting morally?  So lets say a person really thought there was nothing wrong with owning slaves, or bestiality etc.  Lots of times people are mistaken about the morality of their actions.  Does this influence the morality/culpability of their actions?  In a sense it would seem that a moral realist could not agree to this, as it would seem to directly contradict his view that whether something is moral or not is independent of our or anyone’s beliefs about it being moral.  But I think the moral realist can even say the actor’s beliefs about whether he or she is acting morally can effect their culpability.

How can I do this and maintain my moral realism?  By explaining that at least arguably that would be part of the mens rea.  And as part of the mens rea it is a relevant fact in the totality of circumstances considered.    But, of course, our after the fact views of the morality of the situation is not part of the mens rea. (assuming we had nothing to do with the actions)  So it is not the case that the beliefs of anyone trying to judge the situation is a relevant fact.  For the subjectivist the key to what is moral is what does a certain person or group doing the judging think.

Moreover just because the person who committed the crime thought it was moral at the time, that does not mean it was moral.    That would not be a view a moral realist could hold IMO.  Rather the moral realist believes that given all the relevant facts, including whatever the mens rea of the person was at the time, an action was either moral or not.  An acter’s view of what was moral or immoral at the time can influence how immoral their action was but it is certainly not always dispositive.

To be sure I think there can be a bit more argument along this extreme edge of understanding what moral realism means.  But hopefully, this blog helped explain the basics of  “relevant sense of mind-independence” for those who are new to the subject.  A moral realist can properly account for mens rea, without buying into a moral subjectivism by believing that morality is entirely determined by the judgements of some person or group.