A Review of “Some Thoughts on Naturalism and Morality” by Jason Thibodeau

At the request of an acquaintance on another site, I’ve just finished reading this article,  and I must admit that it’s one of the better attempts to justify morality on naturalism. However, he has a couple of holes in his argument that I’d like to address briefly. This post will assume some prior knowledge that many who interact with me on CrossExamined.org will have. To the rest of you, I apologize!

Thibodeau’s article can be found here.

Please remember that Thibodeau is a trained philosopher. I don’t even play one on TV. I’m just a simple guy with a slightly-above-average intelligence (so I’m told) that is trying to reason through this stuff. Yet, it seems to me that good philosophy should have great explanatory power and correspond to what we perceive reality to be. I don’t see this in his article.

First of all, is this claim:

4. Killing babies is horrendous.
5. Even if God does not exist, killing babies is horrendous.
6. So, even if God does not exist, objective moral values do exist.

This, to my mind, is so compelling as to be decisive. I do not see what the existence of God adds to the universe such that, if he did not exist, the killing of an innocent child would not be horrendous.

I’m very glad he finds killing babies to be horrendous. (I wonder if he approves of abortion…) However, he makes this statement simply as an assertion without any evidence to say why it is horrendous. Remember this point, for it will be significant later.

To Thibodeau’s credit, he presents the theistic moral argument pretty well, and does a reasonably fair job presenting the theist’s contention that atheism and morality are incompatible. He only falters in his accuracy while trying to explain some details. Yet, these details are crucially important. For instance, he objects that, “if value depends on God, wouldn’t value just be a matter of God’s subjective and arbitrary preferences?”

The answer, contrary to his contention is “no.” As you know by now, I claim that moral values and duties are the expression of the eternal and unchanging nature of God, not just something that he commands on an arbitrary whim. God didn’t create the moral standard, he (or his nature) is the moral standard. Because it is grounded in his unchanged nature, it could not be other than it is, and therefore is not arbitrary, nor subjective.

He then provides a wonderful analysis of why moral values could not possibly be grounded in an object’s physical attributes. I agree with him completely on this. However, I don’t know of a single theist who makes this argument. Thibodeau himself doesn’t provide an example of anyone who does, but simply says, “I think…” or “I suspect…[they] have this model in mind…”. This seems a bit of a straw-man argument, but as I agree with his conclusion, I won’t complain. He’s helped make a point I would have otherwise had to make myself.

And here is the crux of the matter. Thibodeau is again correct when he says, “Moral properties are not features of reality in the way that coolness, heat, wetness, solidity, etc. are features of reality. Morality is not concerned with a special class of properties, the moral ones. Rather, morality is concerned with a special kind of significance: moral significance.

And in his next four paragraphs, he convincingly shows that “significance is not a special kind of property that is analogous to physical properties.” You won’t find significance in the molecules of an entity. Again, I agree completely. However, I disagree when he says, “Thus there is no reason to suppose that the significance of something has to be reduced to some basic, fundamental feature of reality” to the extent that this sentence, perhaps unintentionally, makes significance seem unreal. He later denies this very claim, so I have to think that this is just a poorly expressed thought intended to say that significance cannot be reduced to a physical feature.

So then, based on this, he offers the following syllogism (which he claims is invalid):

7. If God does not exist, then objectively significant evidence does not exist.
8. But objectively significant evidence does exist.
9, So, God exists.

He claims, “Obviously this is a ridiculous argument. It is ridiculous because it has an inappropriate (one might say overly-metaphysical) understanding of evidential significance.

I find two problems with this statement. First, he has just spent several paragraphs showing clearly that significance cannot be a physical property, but then he complains when people apply an “overly” metaphysical understanding of significance. You cannot have it both ways; is it physical or non-physical? It’s odd that he would complain because someone agrees with what he’s worked so hard to prove.

Secondly, he earlier had said, “The significance of the body is just a matter of its being properly related to the claim ‘Bigfoot exists.’” Significance must have an object to which it relates. However, he left this object out of his syllogism. By his own words, this is an invalid leap in logic.

I propose a slightly different reading, with an applicable object added in:

7a. If God does not exist, then objectively significant evidence for God’s existence does not exist.
8a. But objectively significant evidence for God’s existence does exist.
9a, So, God exists.

Far from being ridiculous, this is a perfectly logical statement. While we might debate the truth of the claims, the logic seems to be airtight.

Furthermore, Thibodeau never seems to recognize that, given his description of significance, such a thing can only exist inside of a mind. Significance necessarily deals with relationship of one entity or concept with another. This relationship cannot exist in a physical attribute; a mind is required that can appreciate the significance of that relationship. If then, morality deals with moral significance, then it must involve a mind.

Interestingly, he strongly implies that morality based in God would “be a matter of God’s subjective and arbitrary preferences”. Yet when addressing his understanding of morality, he writes, “Once again, the claims about significance that I have made are not subjective, nor are they a matter of preference or arbitrary whim. They are completely objective. And this is an important (IMPORTANT!) point: the significance of lack or significance of a piece of evidence is not an extra, special property of the piece of evidence. That is, it is not as if the dead body has, but the sounds do not have, some special property called ‘significance.’

Why then does he discount that God, who by practically anyone’s definition knows and understands far more about this universe than we, could not comprehend moral significance far better than we? Why would a God-based morality necessarily be subjective? He fails to address this issue, and it seems to be a glaring error in his logic.

He then addresses the meaning of “moral”, and again, he rightly recognizes that this cannot be a matter of a physical property, or anything analogous to such. He explains it this way:

Morality concerns practical reason; that is, it is a matter of what we should do (deontic moral value) and what is worth pursuing (axiological moral value).

So far, so good. He continues to describe how (what I would call) moral principles seem to have a hierarchical structure, and tend to override “other values and concerns”. He doesn’t explain this—he assumes, quite correctly, that most people will agree with him. But it is worth pointing out that this is an assumption. He’s given us no reasons why moral values should trump other values and concerns.

And here is where I find the sloppiest logic: He writes, “Suppose that I have a desire for some particular consumer good. Acquiring this good has value in virtue of the fact that it satisfies my desire. But suppose that acquiring that consumer good would be or would lead to a morally bad state of affairs. In that case, the moral value trumps the other concerns and thus, all else being equal, I ought not pursue that particular consume[r] good.”.

This is begging the question! To simply the statement, he’s saying “I want X, but if I get X, then Y will happen. Y is morally bad, so I should not do X”. Ok… WHY should you not do X? Because Y will happen. But why should Y not happen? Because it’s morally bad! Ok… what makes Y morally bad?

By his own definition, it’s because Y is negatively morally significant. But that significance is identified by what? A mind! Whose mind? Yours? Mine?

He then states, “Since moral value is a matter of significance, we cannot think of moral value as a special kind of property. Whether something has moral value is thus not a matter of whether it has some special property, but whether it matters in the right kind of way.” But who gets to decide whether something matters in “the right kind of way?” As he says himself, “naturalism makes no claim about what matters”. A mind is required for anything to matter, but on his views, we are at an interminable impasse whenever two person’s disagree about the moral significance of an action.

Then comes his thoughts on pain. I find this passage especially interesting: “[S]uppose someone asks, “But in virtue of what is pain morally significant? In virtue of what does pain have this special status?”

His answer? “Pain just is significant; its significance is not reducible to or identical with any other more fundamental feature of reality.” (Emphasis added.)

He wasn’t quite as willing to accept a “just-so” argument earlier: “On Robert Adams’ divine command theory of moral obligations, for example, we are told that moral obligations just are divine commands, in just the same way that water just is H2O. Adams’ himself offers this analogy and I think it is very significant that he does.” (Emphasis added)

But again, pain is only significant when there is a mind to comprehend it. Rocks don’t complain about pain. And not all pain is morally negative—several years ago I had a person slice me open and remove an internal organ. Without the appendectomy, I quite possibly may have died. My surgeon inflicted pain on me for the greater good.

While Thibodeau does recognize a hierarchy of moral significance, we must still ask the question, what makes the difference in a surgeon performing an appendectomy, and a criminal of urban legend removing from an unsuspecting tourist a kidney to sell on the black market? Is it not intent? When one causes me harm in order to help me, or unintentionally, we don’t call that moral evil. However, is someone tries to murder me and fails so badly that I never even knew about the attempt, he could still be put away for attempted homicide. It seems apparent that motive plays a huge role in determining the moral goodness or badness of an action.

But to discern motives perfectly requires a mind far about that of our own. Trying to reconcile motives with actions and moral culpability without a supreme, omniscient mind is an impossible task.

Now, Thibodeau started off with the premise that “killing babies is horrendous.” What makes it so?

By his logic, killing babies must be a morally significant action. And I agree that it is. But he has not yet explained what makes it morally significant. He simply asserts this as a fact, knowing that any reasonably-sane person would agree. But what kind of universe would have to exist for this to be true?

In his proposed atheistic universe, this event will indeed have great significance when it first happens, but it seems that over time, the significance of the event will diminish. Just yesterday, we had an eight-year-old child to die in a car accident here in our county. This is indeed a hugely significant event! This family’s lives have been changed forever, and everyone in the area is grieving with them. But can anyone here tell me (without research) the name of any young child who died during the last cholera epidemic? The horror of such an event lessens as the years pass, and those who knew the one who died pass on themselves, until finally, very few if any are remembered.

How significant now, given atheism, are the deaths of those who died in the ancient Roman wars? Remember… significance, Thibodeau admits, is relative. The lives and deaths of those soldiers have scarcely any impact on our lives today. Had one more died, or one more survived, it would likely have no impact at all on us in the modern age.

So what of this young eight-year-old’s death? Is she simply destined to be of no moral value in 500 years?

And if this is true (you’re welcome to tell me why I’m wrong), then is killing babies in such a universe truly morally significant? Thibodeau says, “I do not see what the existence of God adds to the universe such that, if he did not exist, the killing of an innocent child would not be horrendous.”

Well, for one thing, God remembers! Every single person who dies tragically, God grieves over them and remembers them. They are all significant to him, and thus, they continue to be of great moral significance, even though we have forgotten their names.

Furthermore, God is a righteous judge who knows the motives of every heart, and is capable of perfectly judging one for their intended action, not just the actions that successfully cause moral damage or physical harm.

And finally, God is capable of executing perfect justice. No one who died an “undeserved and excruciating” death will be forgotten. Every wrong will be made right. Without this hope, justice is a farce! How many men have done great moral evil, yet lived long and (apparently) happy and successful lives? An atheistic universe makes a mockery of justice, as there is no possible way that this account can ever be settled.

While I have many other objections to his arguments, I think this is, well… probably far too many for a single post. However, he does have a lot of content, and a lot of it is quite well thought-out. However, his reasoning seems a little murky at times, and he does employ a few straw-man arguments to help bolster his case. All things considered, it’s a well-written article, but it doesn’t stand up well under close scrutiny.


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