Maverick Christian (hereby MC) took the time to respond tomy post on his conception of a “prescriptive ought” and I’ve just had too much going on in the real world to craft a proper reply till now.
In the interim he’s also been busy on a few Facebook threads on the Real Atheology page giving some additional descriptions on how he grounds his prescriptive ought, which I’ll be responding to here as well.
So at first there seems to be some confusion on what MC has meant regarding his prescriptive ought, since I had taken him to mean that the “prescriptive ought” couldn’t have a descriptive component to it. This was the basis of my rejecting the concept of a prescriptive ought in my previous post, and why I thought even well-established theistic apologists would reject MC’s description.
As it turns out, MC says in his reply that:
“Prescriptive oughts cannot be purely descriptive but they can have at least some descriptive characteristics, such as being ontologically grounded in God's divine commands or providing reasons for action.”
So ultimately the prescriptive ought MC describes is grounded in descriptive facts – on various Facebook threads he’s stated that god’s nature has the property of “ought to be obeyed”. That’s a descriptive property of a non-moral fact – a fact about a supernatural being (assuming one existed).
Given this conception, I don’t really have as much of a problem with the concept of a prescriptive ought as I thought I did when we had conducted our debate or my last post, since I thought it entailed rejecting any kind of descriptive component at all.
MC is still far off base when he says that atheism can’t ground this kind of ought however, and I still think that part of an actions moral qualities depend on ones desires to some degree – as I tried to tease out in the Bret vs. Chet thought experiment in my last post.
To show where MC goes off lets step back for a moment and consider what else MC means by “prescriptive ought”, he quotes philosopher Michael Jordan:
"Moral reasons are reasons for all human persons, regardless of what goals or desires they may have."
OK, this seems fair enough, I’d agree that there are some classes of “ought” that would apply regardless of goals or desires one has. This is what would normally be called “normativity”.
One instance would be rational normativity: The idea that we ought to believe the conclusion of a valid argument with true premises. Or that we ought to believe rigorously proven mathematical truths. Or that we ought to believe the conclusions of empirical science.
All of this “ought to be done” regardless of whether we want it to be true or not, and regardless of what our goals are.
I don’t have a problem saying that morality falls under this kind of normativity. We “ought not torture babies for fun” regardless of our other desires.
So how can atheists provide a ontological grounding to this kind of moral ought?
Well in much the same way MC does with his eventual grounding. MC says moral oughts are grounded in the nature of god, in that he has the property “ought to be obeyed”.
Well a moral naturalist could say that our “moral obligation to uphold the good and stop the bad” is grounded in the nature of living in a society of moral agents. Moral agents by their nature are forced into a society, and it is the fact that they exist in that society which impinges on them to behave morally. Note that this is NOT saying that moral values are relative to a society.
Here “good” and “bad” would be moral values that are described ultimately by the brute facts of our nature, and the fact that we’re in a society would ground the obligation, not define what is good and bad. I would define society as the total subset of moral agents that can causally interact with each other.
This isn’t where the moral naturalists story has to end, and this is a fairly simplistic case – but it would provide the basis for an objective moral system to govern all moral agents in a universe without any supernatural beings.
Conversely, I could reject that idea and become a moral non-naturalist that thinks moral claims don’t reduce down to natural facts, but at the same time don’t have any ‘ontologically weighty implications’ either.
Here the moral non-naturalist could still agree with the naturalist about what makes something “good” or “bad” – truths established by the brute facts of our biology. So “being in pain for its own sake” is a “bad-maker”, etc. What the non-naturalist would say is that this fact is not the same thing as “pain=bad” in an ontological sense.
When it comes to moral duties, or what we ought to do, they can ground that in the nature of the moral facts combined with being recognized by an agent.
Consider the following:
- All men are mortal.
- Socrates is a man.
- Therefore Socrates is moral.
- Torturing people for fun is intrinsically bad.
- Babies are people.
- Torturing babies for fun is bad.
In the moral case, we’re not talking about what ought to be done yet, we’re only making statements about values themselves.
The non-naturalist would then say that as we recognize the validity and truth of the non-moral syllogism and so then have an obligation to believe the conclusion, even if we really wished Socrates was immortal.
Similarly, by recognizing the moral fact of the matter regarding certain actions, we would then have an obligation to act morally when faced with that situation.
In either case, both the non-naturalist and the naturalist have a grounding to get the kind of ought that applies regardless of our desires and applies equally to all people. There’s nothing clear in these concepts that makes it the case that we MUST appeal to a god in order to ground this kind of oughtness.
In fact MC never makes it clear exactly how appealing to his god’s nature as a ground provides any extra work here, that’s just his preferred stopping point.
Note that this isn’t about moral semantics or moral enforcement, we’re talking about moral ontology. MC would have quite a lot of work to do in order to show some kind of contradiction in the concepts here in order to rule out the naturalist and non-naturalist options.
This is why even Christian philosophers such as Richard Swinburne reject the moral argument and consider moral truths to be necessary truths, even if a god exists – that is moral truths don’t depend on god. It’s also why Christian philosophers like Paul Moser also reject the moral argument, including MC’s formulation of it.
Moral ontology, by the nature of the topic itself, allows for these kinds of options. Atheism may be deficient when it comes to universal moral enforcement, but not ontology.