Objective Morality and Incoherent Appeals to Definitions

sinking boat

Let me give proper recognition, first and foremost, to those atheists who realize that for morality to be true and meaningful it, necessarily, must be objective, or that it must be real and they do this against those who argue that morality, as such, is inherently subjective and relative. I refer, specifically, to promoters of such a position as Eric Wielenberg, professor of philosophy at Depauw University, and his position specifically presented in his paper In Defense of Non-Natural, Non-Theistic Moral Realism (found here) and an interesting critique of it by an atheist (found here).

Those who appeal to a subjective and relativistic morality, it is pointed out by objectivists and realists, who are both theistic and atheistic in their worldview, have no grounds to appeal to say that any moral considerations that such a position produces is either true or moral and have no meaningful basis to judge anything as true or moral without engaging in a mass of self-refuting or viciously circular and fallacious appeals to consensus or special pleading. The relativist and the subjectivist cannot even judge their own actions as being either true or moral, but does so ad hoc.

But what about the atheist who wants to appeal to some objective moral, what are they appealing to? There are some atheists who try to get to some type of moral argument and call it “objective” (such an instance is in my previous post), but, as demonstrated, it breaks down under close examination, which is how so many ultimately break down when you stop taking the argument at face-value and push it to its limits, does it hold, or does it fold? Such an argument, presented as if it is conclusive in its presentation, was recently discovered on Instagram, was repeated by someone I have interacted with, and deserves it’s own analysis.

Presented by someone whose handle is killosophy, it is very telling and consistent of those who are doing their best, atheistically, to ground moral judgement objectively apart from God. His caption reads,

Good & bad… Right & wrong… These terms are well defined, and can be easily applied in ethical situations using proper logic. Often, the claim is made that without some “higher power” to guide us, what is “good or bad” & “right or wrong” is subjective to the preferences of the individual performing or assessing the act. This is an abandonment of logical discourse. Logic and language are inexorably linked in a way that makes them dependent upon one another. We can have no logical discussion about terms that are ill-defined, and we can hardly use well-defined terms without the backing of logic that leads to those definitions. So, the rapist who says that rape is good, in their subjective opinion, is not adhering to the established definition of good. Definitions are not subjective!!! This is of utmost importance. The rapist’s subjective opinion may be that rape is good, but the objective truth about rape is that it is bad. There needs to be a clear understanding of the distinction here. The rapist’s opinion on rape doesn’t make rape good, even from their own viewpoint. (If it is my opinion that an apple is an orange, that has no bearing on the truth of the matter) The rapist likes something that is bad, by definition. Good, bad, right, & wrong are well defined, and useful in logical discourse. All we need is to show the incoherence in the logic of the rapist who thinks rape is good. That shouldn’t be too hard.

Read it a couple of more times, before proceeding.

It seems to make a good argument.

Superficially, it makes a good argument, which I shall summarize thusly,

1. We have definitions of good and bad, right and wrong.

2. These defitions of ours are dependent upon language and logic.

3. We have defined “rape” as a morally wrong action.

4. Using language and logic we can argue that “rape” is inherently “wrong”.

5. Definitions are objective.

6. Therefore, by definition, rape is objectively wrong.

I’m not sure what’s worse: the circularity, the non sequitur, or the arbitrariness?

It’s circularity is dependent upon “definitions“, which begs the question, whose definitions? If the answer is, well, our definitions, it should immediately prompt the retort, what makes you think that we have the right definitions? The argument is undone, ultimately, by the fact that he is assuming that the definitions to which he is appealing are true and proper without giving a basis for assuming such.

The fact that the conclusion, rape is objectively wrong, doesn’t follow from the premises is because of the inherent circularity: we have defined the term “rape” in such a way that it is morally wrong, therefore it is morally wrong. It’s playing with words. People have defined the term “littering” in such a way that it is morally wrong, and depending on where you live you can pay a hefty fine for it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that throwing a piece of paper out of the window of your car is really an objectively moral offense. Simply, the fact that you can define an action as being morally wrong doesn’t mean that it is. What if you encountered a culture where forced sexual contact was how a person demonstrated their desire to marry? The definition itself is meant to illicit a reaction by calling it a “crime” rather than demonstrating it as such.


(Image: http://www.bing.com)

We can take the circularity of the position, combine it with the non sequitur, and get that killosophy is arbitrarily picking one definition over another. However, if he lived in a culture where forced sexual contact was a prelude to marriage, he might consider such a definition as “prudish” and even dishonest. Definitions change over time, and change in application. Given the rise of the SJW (social justice warrior) culture that takes ridiculous positions on what constitutes and defines “rape”, would Killosophy submit to their definition, and if not, why? Unless you can provide a basis for a meaningful definition, one that can encompass all cultures at all times, all that you are doing is playing word games.

Let’s use a little thought experiment with our imaginary culture that uses forced sexual contact as a sign that one intends to marry, that within the culture, the female gives culturally approved signs to her “rapist” (using our terminology) that she desires to be his wife. One day, he grabs her up and forces himself on her, and takes her home with him and they live happily ever after. This has been the established means of courtship for a thousand years. And outsider, a modern American anthropologist comes to study the culture, and unwittingly gives the signs of courtship to a single male who, operating on his culturally defined norms, does what his culture approves of. Has he truly done anything wrong?

It depends upon whose definition you are using.

The anthropologist may, given her cultural definitions, believe that the behavior was immoral. However, according to the culture and its definitions, nothing immoral has occurred. If you are going to appeal to definitions, these are the problems that you are going to have.

So, for something to be truly, objectively immoral, there must be something else in operation, that it’s not just the action, but also the intention that has to be judged. For rape, as a behavior, to be called “immoral,” to have meaning, it necessarily has to transcend a boundary not established by time or culture, or even outward expression.

Let’s go back to our imaginary culture that uses forced sexual contact as a prelude for marriage. Forced sexual contact, in that culture, is not in-and-of-itself immoral, however they do consider unprovoked contact immoral, that a desire for such a behavior is desired is dependent upon a publicly performed initiating act. If such an act was not made publicly known, then the sexual sanctity of the person is assumed to have been violated, and the behavior is subject to sanction. It’s not the behavior that is judged, in and of itself, but the entirety of the event. The entire case is built upon a belief that a person has a right to sexual integrity that must be maintained. That means that “rape” is not wrong because of some definition of a behavior, but that we are only able to make such definitions because there is something about the person that is valuable, and that there is a way that we are to conduct ourselves because when we interact, something that is not determined by culture, that we are not merely the end result of a long chain of an unintended chemical reaction interacting with another, but something completely different. The assumption of the immorality of the behavior is not based upon a lone definition, or description, but upon a presumed value of a person and that value applies in regards to the actions. The value is what is objective, external, goal oriented, and everything else follows from it.

Killosophy arbitrarily considers his definition, the definition that he prefers, to be objective. This is not about “opinions” as he suggests, even though his opinion is that the definitions he chooses to use provide a basis to ground morality. “The rapist is not adhering to the established definitions,” he writes. So what? Why should he play by your rules? What, in your worldview Killosophy, gives you any right or obligation to speak to anyone about any element of their behavior? You are both the end result of an accidental, mindless, and unguided chemical reaction. It is just the chemical reactions in your brain making you believe what you believe. There is nothing actually wrong and there is nothing that is actually “rape”, from your worldview. How would he respond to the statement of Richard Dawkins, namely,

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces, and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

(River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, emphasis added)

If Killosophy is going to assume a Darwinian view, which is what is what he seems to embrace, he must accept, given the presuppositions of Darwinists like Dawkins, that there is no meaningful justification for assuming that the definitions that he is appealing to are either true or meaningful.

Killosophy appeals to logic and language saying that they are, “[…]inexorably linked in a way that makes them dependent upon one another.

Okay? That means what, exactly from your worldview? To what are you appealing to justify the use and applicability of logic and its expression through language as a means to express the definition that you want to use appeal to someone according to logic and language?

The rapist likes something that is bad, by definition,” Killosophy states.

Whose definition?

Well, our definition.

What makes you think that is a valid definition? Anything that is appealed to that cannot speak to any culture at any time, that is not transcendent, as a source for the definitions needed, renders such claims invalid.

I will agree that it is important to define your terms, and to be able to demonstrate, in logical argumentation that the definition that you are going to use has a meaningful application to the argument, but Killosophy is simply asserting that the definitions of “good”, “bad”, “right”, and “wrong” are, in fact, “well defined”. Do they flow from your worldview, or do they have to be imported into it?

My argument is that Killosophy is depending upon terms that his worldview is incapable  of providing a grounding for, given his Darwinian presuppositions. Such foundations cannot account for immaterial, unchanging universals, such as logic, much less the language necessary to express it or the moral values to which he is appealing in hopes of making an argument.

If the “definitions” that he is dependent upon come from outside of his worldview, that they are grounded in a decidedly Christian worldview, then his entire argument is refuted because he is appealing to a justification that is based in an eternal, transcendent, and sovereign Creator who has imparted an intrinsic value to creatures made to reflect his image by reflecting his attributes of love, justice, and wisdom, not acting as a “guide” but as the foundational presupposition for any moral judgment and any ethical argument.

Killosophy, as desperately as he tries to get away from a “higher power” to ground any moral claims, walks squarely into the reality of a transcendent God as the necessary precondition to make give a coherent answer to any ethical question. If anything he is proving Paul’s argument from his letter to the Romans,

[By] nature [they] do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them…(Romans 2:14-15, ESV, emphasis added)

Just for further reference, this debate between David Silverman and James White.

Particularly pay attention to the first set of cross-examination questions, because the question of definitions in regards to moral questions comes up.


2 thoughts on “Objective Morality and Incoherent Appeals to Definitions

  1. Pingback: The “War on Women” Claims Another Casualty  | triggermanblog

  2. Pingback: Morals, Category Errors, and Self-Refutation – triggermanblog

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