Thursday, July 27, 2017

Prescriptive Oughts and Atheism: Round 3

Sometimes I miss comment replies for a while.

Then I will notice them and note that I should write something in response, but life happens and I forget.  This is one of those times.

I was having an enjoyable exchange with apologist Maverick Christian (referred to as MC), and his last comment on that thread was left unanswered.  Since the exchange is interesting I've decided to put another actual post on the topic up rather than leave good content buried in a comment thread.

I actually hope that MC doesn't mind my responding so late in this fashion, and I apologize for there being such a delay.  That all said, lets begin.

MC's main contention is that moral facts, specifically what he calls prescriptive oughts can not be reduced down to natural facts. He describes his views well here:

"So what are my semantics? “Descriptive facts” and “descriptive oughts” are those that can be expressed entirely in descriptive language (confer my earlier comment on what I mean by “descriptive language”). A “prescriptive ought” is that type of ought that is not a descriptive ought (and thus can’t be expressed entirely in descriptive language); it prescribes and is not purely descriptive, e.g. “You should not torture infants just for fun.” Prescriptive ought facts are thus not descriptive ought facts. By “natural facts” I mean facts that can be expressed entirely in the language of psychology and the natural sciences, and since such language (of chemistry etc.) is entirely descriptive, natural facts are descriptive facts. My definition of “moral ought fact” uses the prescriptive ought, and since prescriptive ought facts are not natural facts (because natural facts are descriptive facts), moral ought facts are not natural facts given my definitions of “moral ought facts,” “natural facts,” etc.
MC's main contention with moral naturalism (ie. that moral facts reduce down to natural facts) is that the only way I can make that work is to "redefine morality" so that moral ought's are no longer "prescriptive oughts":
That said, the statement “moral ought facts are natural facts” can be true if you use different semantics from what I’m using; e.g. if the “moral ought” is a descriptive ought, having no properties besides purely descriptive ones. Whether “moral ought facts are natural facts” is true depends on what you mean by your terms.
This is where MC has made a serious error.  An atheist can accept his account of moral oughts being "prescriptive oughts" in so far as they are not purely descriptive, and they can do this not by "redefining morality" or even rejecting his moral semantics.  Let's examine how by first looking at MC's own succinct summary of his views in a syllogism:
(1) All natural facts are purely descriptive (they can be stated entirely in descriptive language).

(2) Moral ought facts are not purely descriptive (it is false that moral oughts have no properties besides purely descriptive ones).

(3) Therefore, moral ought facts are not natural facts.
In order to reject MC's conclusion (3) I need to deny either (1) or (2).   MC is alleging that in order to reject (3) I must reject (2), but that is not what I've been arguing.  In fact, I've argued that I reject (1), the idea that all natural facts are purely descriptive.

I'm not arguing with MC's moral semantics, I'm arguing with his views on the nature of natural facts.

To support my rejection of (1) lets get a few things clear.

Both MC and myself share something in our views of moral ontology: we both endorse a kind of moral reductionism. What we disagree on is what moral values specifically reduce down to.

As an atheist, I'm inclined to argue that moral facts reduce down to natural facts. As a Christian, MC is inclined to argue that moral facts reduce down to supernatural facts (ie. facts about god's nature specifically).

The thing with reductionism is that when we argue that one thing reduces down to something else, we are stuck using descriptive language when we talk about that thing. 

However since we both agree that moral facts are inherently prescriptive, we are necessarily saying that facts about <reduction> are prescriptive.

This is what I had charged MC with in the previous exchange: 
All you're doing is baking the "prescriptive ought" into a descriptive fact about god. That kind of move can just as easily be done with a subset of natural facts.
To which his reply is rather enlightening: 
That’s not true if by “descriptive fact” we mean “a fact that can be stated entirely in descriptive language” since by definition a prescriptive ought cannot be stated entirely in descriptive language. So if “God has an essential prescriptive ought-to-be-obeyed quality” is a fact, it is not a descriptive fact. Prescriptive ought facts cannot be descriptive facts.
Emphasis mine.

First off, MC is begging the question when he says "if god has a prescriptive ought to obeyed quality" then "god facts" aren't purely descriptive.  That's the whole point of the debate! An atheist moral naturalist can do the same kind of "baking in" action with regards to natural facts:

If some natural facts have a prescriptive 'ought not be done' quality, then those natural facts are not purely descriptive facts.

A moral naturalist would argue that the nature of "torturing babies for fun" is inherently evil and that evil things intrinsically "ought not be done". 

In fact one thing that becomes clear is that regardless of what we base our moral system on, the prescriptive ought is always going to be baked-in to what we base our moral system on, whether it is natural facts or god.

Keep in mind I'm not rejecting the prescriptive nature of the moral ought, I'm rejecting the premise that natural facts can't be prescriptive.

One last bit that will be relevant here: Can the atheist hold that some subset of natural facts are inherently prescriptive without begging the question like MC does by using morality as an example?

I think the answer is yes, and I can give two examples: Mathematics and Logic.

I think facts about logic and math can reduce down to natural facts, or at least not require some kind of special ontology (thought there are those who hold  opposing views).  The idea is that it's not inherently contradictory to hold to a natural or even agnostic view of logic and math.

So if I say that I ought to accept the conclusion of a logically valid argument with sound premises, and that I ought to accept that conclusion in any possible world - that's a prescriptive ought.  Same when it comes to accepting the conclusions of a mathematical proof or theorem once you have accepted the axioms that proof is founded on.

There just is something about the fact of the matter given those logical and mathematical truths that obligates us to believe them.  I'd argue it's much the same when it comes to morality being objective.

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