Is the Foundation of Morality Supernatural?

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Is the foundation of morality natural or supernatural? Among many others, this is an ongoing problem in ethics. The problem as I see from one of the possible viewpoints is whether objective morality can be justified on a naturalistic account or whether objective morality requires a supernatural paradigm.

To say, for example, that there is a clear dichotomy between good and evil and to say that certain acts performed by human beings are good or evil would suggest that morality is objective (of course, it is essential to unpack this enigmatic term—“objective”). But if I commit myself to the view that objective moral values exist, do I, by default, accept that the foundation of morality is supernatural, or divine for that matter? Or, to put it in reverse order, if I do not believe that the ground of morality is supernatural, to be consistent, do I have to accept that there are no objective moral values? To be clear, I am not defending moral relativism or nihilism; my view is that objective moral values do exist and yet that their foundation is natural.

One important premise is to emphasize that the foregoing question is concerned about the ontological foundation of morality rather than the epistemology of morality. That is to say, in my discussion I am interested in the question of what, if any, is the basis of morality. What I am not discussing here is how we come to know morality. One can come to know what is moral from many sources, religious or secular entities, for example. But the question here is rather where morality comes from. The way some might put this problem is this: if morality is a baby, people come to know this baby from many different sources. But “Who is the mother of that baby?” is the question.

To start with the term objective, when the term “objective” is contemplated in ethics, it is taken to mean that if morality is in fact objective, it is so at a cosmic level; or that moral values are valid independently of human opinion. For example, to say that the Holocaust is objectively immoral, it means that what the Nazis did was immoral independently of whether they thought it was good. And it would still have been evil even if they had succeeded in exterminating or brainwashing everyone into believing that Nazi doctrines were good. In the view of those who believe that morality requires a supernatural foundation, (which I will henceforth refer to as supernaturalists) God, or perhaps some other metaphysical entity, is required as the absolute standard against which all moral actions are measured and deemed moral or immoral. Objective morality would accordingly mean that something moral is moral independently of the existence of rational minds. Conversely, many philosophers believe that morality is merely a social construct and therefore no moral values exist—much less objective moral values. Those who believe that morality’s foundation is supernatural assert that if one denies this view (that the foundation of morality is supernatural), he commits himself to saying that morality is subjective. I believe that this is false, and that objective morality does not require supernatural foundation; objective morality is justifiable in naturalistic terms. The view is that moral values are objective and grounded in the nature of human beings; thus, the foundation of moral values is natural.

When morality is discussed, one way that helps flesh out the issue of the ground of morality is to consider the problem of evil. What is moral or immoral is also what is good or evil. And if the paradigm and the locus of morality is a good God, many raise an objection in the form of what’s known as the problem of evil. Evil constitutes a problem due to the apparent inconsistency or contradiction arising out two propositions: one is the fact that many instances of evil and suffering exist in the world; and the other is the alleged existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient deity, God. By evils it is typically meant inflicting harm upon other humans and animals, i.e., Holocaust, genocide, torture, and so on. Other types of evils are natural disasters, diseases, birth defects, genetic disorders, etc. The contradiction or inconsistency between the existence of God, as described above, and the presence of evil in the world is not explicit. Namely, it is argued that since God is omnipotent, all-knowing, and all-powerful, he can and ought to prevent or eliminate evil, but he does not. Over the centuries, many atheist philosophers have used this argument to disprove the existence of God. On the other side, theologians have offered many arguments to show that the existence of evil is in fact compatible with the existence of God.

At any rate, some atheistic philosophers may argue that the problem of evil is a problem for the theologian, who holds a belief in a certain kind of god. Atheist philosophers usually take a naturalistic approach when faced with the fact of the existence of evil; they note that evil in the world arises out of the world’s complexity. The nature of the world is such that there are many states of affairs which generate numerous evils. Thus, from a non-theist perspective, it may be said that evil is an unfortunate and inevitable aspect of existence. But then, how can an atheist speak of something being evil in the first place? How can he be in a position to say that something like the Holocaust is objectively evil and, say, tearing up a sheet of paper is not? At face value, the Holocaust, one may say, is objectively evil, while tearing up a sheet of paper involves no evil act whatsoever. Yet, on a naturalistic account, it would seem that the two events have no moral difference. Theologians slap the hand of the atheist when he declares something to be objectively right or wrong. They say that on a naturalistic account, human beings have no intrinsic moral worth. On naturalism, morality is merely a socio-biologic by-product of evolution.

At this point we have to ask why the supernaturalist insists in saying that morality requires a metaphysical ground. Supernaturalists argue that on naturalism, there is no reason to believe that the morality evolved by Homo sapiens is objective. On naturalism, it would seem that some actions may become socially right or wrong, but they are not objective. Typically, the naturalist argues that the foundation of morality is simply human well-being; but the supernaturalist retorts that that there is no reason to assume that human well-being is enough to ground sound objective morality. In fact, why can morality be based on rodents’ well-being or other animals’ well-being? It would seem arbitrary to say that human animals are the locus of morality. The supernaturalist argues that without a supernatural paradigm morality is just a behavioral by-product of biological evolution, reinforced by social and parental conditioning. Furthermore, the supernaturalist says, naturalism teaches that humans are determined biological machines. As such, moral actions are in reality nothing more than electro-chemical reactions in the nervous system. And this would imply the lack of free will, which is essential to morality. Hence, on naturalism, morality is illusory.

Much of the work of Richard Dawkins, for example, argues that evolution is a deterministic process by which organisms’ sole aim is the propagation of DNA. To be sure, though this discussion is not about Richard Dawkins or his works, Dawkins’ position exemplifies the issue at hand. If human beings are nothing other than machines determined to spread their genes, and if the theory of evolution too teaches us that the principle of evolution is surviving of the fittest, then there would seem to be no reason at all for humans to be moral. On these grounds, why prefer to be moral over being immoral. In fact, if all boils down to passing one’s genes onto the next generation, what is right is to survive at any cost, and thus what may be deemed immoral is actually advantageous to a species’survival. This issue is raised by Glaucon’s definition of justice in Plato’s Republic. Glaucon says that morality seems not to be intrinsically good, but merely instrumentally good in that it is practiced for prudential reasons rather than for its own sake. In other words, it is contended by the supernaturalist, naturalism cannot provide the foundation of objective sound moral values.

The foregoing is a sketch of the position held by supernaturalism, that is, the position that argues that the foundation of morality is supernatural. It is not a complete account, but at least, I hope, it presented the general position held by supernaturalism, as well as the main reason why according to that position morality is best explained in supernatural terms. Now, I believe that one error made by supernaturalism is to look for a “mother” of morality. There isn’t any mother of morality. The error is the same one made by Plato, namely, to regard objective morality as a Form. The details of Plato’s grand theory are too well known to merit discussion here. And its criticisms are even better known. In brief, Plato believed this: I see many beautiful things in the world, but I do not see beauty. Beautiful things are numerous and differ from one another, while beauty is one. Beautiful things age, change, and get destroyed. But my idea of beauty remains. Hence, objective beauty must exist, or, there is a paradigm for beauty. Now this paradigm, by virtue of which many physical things are beautiful, cannot itself be physical, otherwise it would be subject to change. And after all, which physical object could be the paradigm of beauty, a dog, a Picasso? Therefore, there exists a perfect, eternal, unchanging Form of beauty. Similarly, there must be an unchanging perfect Form of morality, by virtue of which moral actions in the world acquire objectivity.

Now, other than linguistic vicissitude, there is no reason to believe that there is a metaphysical realm of perfect Forms. But I want to consider this idea from a different angle by looking at Plato’s famous dialogue, the Euthyphro. This dialogue is the embodiment of this problem of the foundation of morality. In truth, I must say, over the centuries, the argument presented by Socrates has erroneously been pronounced victorious as to refuting the notion that morality has divine origins. But to me it is a false dilemma. The dialogue is set outside the king-archon’s court, where Euthyphro runs into Socrates and tells him that he is pressing manslaughter charges against his father. This is the pretext to start a conversation about the nature of piety. Piety, Euthyphro asserts, is what is dear to the gods. Impious is what is not dear to the gods. If that is so, Socrates rebuts consider this: Is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious, or it is pious because it is loved by the gods? Socrates asks this tongue-twister because Euthyphro’s definition is ambiguous: Let’s think about that. What does it mean that “The pious is that which is loved by the gods?” One reading is that the pious is what the gods love—nothing more to it. There is no aspect in common to all pious acts. Certain acts are, well, just preferred over others by the gods. The gods can change their minds as they often did, so we’re told. The second reading suggests that there is some property that all the pious acts share, which explains why all the gods love the pious. But piety cannot be both! Namely, either the gods love what is already pious, or they make something like an act pious by their act of loving that thing or action.

Translated into modern terms, what Euthyphro says is that what is moral is what the gods deem as moral. But how do the gods, or God, make something moral? Either morality is God’s whim or God sees something in common to all moral actions. But if morality is merely God’s whim, then morality is not objective or at least, there would not be anything in common to all moral actions. Hence, in order for morality to be objective, God must acknowledge what is moral, i.e., he sees something in common to all moral actions—and that’s the Euthyphro Dilemma. The dialogue ends without suggesting a solution to the apparent dilemma of whether morality has divine origin or independent of God. We are left with certain problems: If morality is the same in every action, how can we find the element common to all actions? This would imply that we already know what morality is. But how can we know what morality is if we do not know the element common to all moral acts? On the other hand, if what is moral is moral because God loves it, then morality has not objective basis. Morality would be then something like a blind obedience to God’s whim. But how can we be moral if we simply have to obey God’s whim? So we are in a circle or reasoning. As I said earlier, many atheistic philosophers see the Euthyphro dilemma as a powerful argument against the moral argument. Although I do not believe that morality is independent of gods (nor do I believe in gods or God), I see the Euthyphro as a false dilemma. The simple solution is to say that God is the paradigm of morality; namely, God is the locus of morality and his nature is what morality is. Yet, even if the Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma, where does it lead us to? To say that God and morality are one just begs the question.

Still, we can press the issue. Provided that we can prove the existence of God, it would not follow that morality is objective. If God is a moral agent, objective moral values would not exist and make sense until the advent of human consciousness. A question might be raised: “Can God create a world with different objective moral values from the values he created in this world?” Presumably, God could have done that. But the important question is this: “Could he create a world where, say, it is objectively moral to slaughter children for fun?” Intuitively, it seems that the answer is “No.” For, if God is the paradigm of goodness and morality, its nature, so to speak, allows him only to be good. But if this is so, what this argument proves is that there can be an intrinsically good entity in the universe. Man could just as well be intrinsically good. In any event, it is only after the advent of consciousness that humans acquire moral worth. But to say that God is the paradigm of morality independently of rational minds is utterly meaningless. If there is a God, and he is somehow responsible for morality, the objectivity of morality acquires objectivity, if any, by virtue of there being rational minds, in which case morality would seem to be based on humans’ reason. That is to say, even if we grant the existence of God, it would not explain how God confers objectivity upon humans. One answer is that he does it whether we like it or not, in which case human beings are accidentally the recipients of God’s nature. This view is similar to the one proposed in the discussion of the Euthyphro dilemma. It seems that morality is the nature of God imposed upon us by God himself. So, the only way in which this represents objectivity is from God’s point of view. If the nature of God is forced upon humans by God, morality boils down to God’s order. On the other hand, if morality is to have a value for humans, objective moral values must be based on human nature, in which case, again as in the Euthyphro, morality can be objective and independent of God’s nature.

In other words, God alone cannot be the origin of morality because humans cannot experience objective morality unless there are certain aspects in their nature—and those aspects are reason and human well-being. These features dictate, as it were, objectivity. And thus the opposite, irrationality and human suffering constitute objective evil. Postulating a supernatural foundation of morality would beg the question; for, there are beings that are not moral agents, most animals for example. It is clear that what differentiates animals from human animals is a certain level of consciousness or self-consciousness, with the ability to reflect upon morality. If a lion is not bound by an objective moral duty not to kill a gazelle it is because a lion lacks the intellect necessary to contemplate moral systems. So the assertion that there is an alleged paradigm of morality does not do any good to prove the existence of one.

It seems clear to me that it is when certain kinds of sentient organisms with a certain kind of consciousness arise in the evolutionary process, that those organisms have the capacity to determine what favors their flourishing and what thwarts it; only then can they experience objective moral values. But these values are objective insofar as they are attained and acknowledged by all members of that certain special kind of organisms, i.e., human animals. Furthermore, if there is a paradigm or metaphysical foundation of morality that paradigm is not itself morality in the form in which humans experience moral actions. How is it possible that the alleged paradigm of morality make certain acts moral? How can a metaphysical paradigm beyond space and time make the act of, say, loving one’s neighbor moral, unless there is a physical neighbor with the ability to feel pleasure and pain and, consequently, the act of loving him proves to be a sound moral action? It would seem that for objective moral values to be objective, this alleged paradigm must deal with certain truths about the nature of humans, instead of humans conforming to the nature of the paradigm. At the very least, in light of these points, it would seem to me that the supernaturalists’ position is less likely to be true.

Another mistake is generated by the ambiguity of the term “objective.” The term “objective” is abused by philosophers. What “objective” means is that objective morality exists independently of and even prior to the existence of humans because God exists and he’s the locus of morality. But moral values cannot be objective in that sense. Otherwise, it would mean that prior to the existence of human beings in the universe, murder is immoral. But this is simply absurd. Murder becomes objectively wrong when evolution has produced sentient beings capable of reasoning and appreciating the wrongness of it. The alleged existence of a deity does not make morality objective; rather, the existence of human beings, having evolved a consciousness to such a degree that they can step back and reflect upon themselves and their actions, discover that certain actions promote their well-being and others thwart it.

My position here is that objective morality exists and yet, in order to be objective, it does not require a supernatural foundation. The fundamental error is generated by the misleading means of terms such as “objective.” I do not mean that the term is meaningless, but rather that what is objective is, in the end, a subjective matter (no pun intended). A supernaturalist uses the term because he may be committed to a religious belief or to metaphysical belief. Thus he finds it consistent (and convenient) to say that objective morality exists insofar as there is a metaphysical paradigm of morality. This error, as I pointed out, arises out of semantic deception similar to that made by Plato, who postulates metaphysical forms. So I am not skeptical of the term “objective” per se, but rather of the way in which supernaturalists take it to mean. I believe that sound moral values can be objective in the sense that they are grounded in human nature. The special features inherent in the nature of human beings constitute the ground of objectivity, that is, rationality, the ability to feel pleasure and pain, and the ability to devise complex moral systems that favor a better life.

The problem with the position that the foundation of morality is supernatural is that it rests on dubious premises. Namely, to grant the position of supernaturalism requires the admission of the possibility of metaphysics, not to mention the possibility for disembodied minds or disembodied reason. On the possibility of metaphysics, Kant dedicated his life work. What he was able to show is that the only viable clue we have into metaphysics is the possibility of synthetic a priori propositions. Kant’s final achievement was consequently that certain features and reflections of reality point to the necessary logical conclusion that metaphysics is possible and thus there is a metaphysical realm beside the physical world. (His endeavor shows—purportedly—that if the world makes sense is because of synthetic a priori knowledge. Ultimately, however, Kant shows our limits to our access to the metaphysical world. Namely, we cannot step into the world of metaphysics by using reason, but it is by virtue of metaphysics that we possess reason!

His project failed. For one thing, his division of synthetic vs. analytic was vague enough to attract many thinkers who belonged in the romantic tradition of philosophy. Kant condemned transcendent metaphysics arguing that human understanding is made in such a way that it always tries to venture beyond the realm of possible experience to grasp the nature of things in themselves—but our minds do not have the “power” to go beyond the empirical world. And it is for this reason that Kant saw an endless intellectual battle among philosophers. But while Kant admitted that our defective apparatuses constantly attempt to go beyond the limits of possible experience so we get lost in philosophical contradictions (antinomies), he did not take his own recommendation and fell back into speculative metaphysics, instead. The problem is, I believe, that Kant wanted to prove that certain concepts are necessary and known a priori; these a priori concepts are according to Kant a bridge between thought and perception. As Alfred J. Ayer once put it, Kant was “duped by grammar”, into thinking that certain propositions that were tautological could also tell us something about the structure of the mind and the world.

But where he failed in showing the possibility of metaphysics, he succeeded, in my opinion, in showing that sound objective moral values need not be founded on supernatural ground. Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a viable system that is independent of a supernatural paradigm. He argues that the foundation of morality is reason. To be moral, he proposes, is to act according to certain axioms determined by the universalization of moral laws; these laws must be tested and adopted only when they can be held without contradiction. Kant believed that it is possible to objectively assert that certain acts, such as lying or stealing or killing are never morally sound, because lying or stealing or killing cannot possibly be a universal maxim; this means that the basis of morality are our nature of sentient, logical beings. On logical grounds, we can declare that we have “perfect duties” not to act in certain ways. When confronted by an ethical dilemma, Kant argues, we must ask ourselves whether we would want all people in all places, at all times to do what we are about to do. Kant’s first formulation requires that the maxims be chosen as though they should hold as universal laws of nature. This is a test to determine whether a maxim can be universalized, and it has 5 steps:
1. Take a moral statement, for example the declaration “I will cheat for personal benefit.”
2. Imagine a possible world in which everyone followed that maxim.
3. Decide whether any contradictions or irrationalities arise in such a world as a result of following the maxim.
4. If a contradiction or irrationality arises, acting on that maxim is not allowed in the real world.
5. If there is no contradiction, that maxim is morally sound; but if there is, well, then it is not morally sound.

His second formulation is grounded in the rationality of human being such that the basis of all maxims provides that humans be treated never as a mere means but as ends. What this means is that all rational beings should never be exploited for personal gain. And the third formulation tells us that all maxims must harmonize with a Kingdom of Ends. This means that we should act in such a way that we may think of ourselves as members in the universal realm of ends.

What Kant’s ethical system shows, in my opinion, is the cogency of a philosophical position known as non-reductive physicalism. That is, while mental states (and in fact in this case everything that is good or evil) are caused by physical states they are not reducible to physical properties. In other words, although humans on naturalism can be regarded as bio-mechanical machines, humans’ biological properties are such that they dictate what is objectively good or objectively evil. And what makes humans choose to be moral is that to be moral is to be rational, and therefore sound moral values are determinable by logically sound propositions. Objective sound moral values are established with respect to the biological properties that render humans different from a piece of paper or an animal. Now, a typical objection is that the foregoing still begs the question, that is, human well-being and reason are insufficient to ground objective morality. However, the objection rests on the assumption that if morality is objective, it can be only in virtue of a transcendental paradigm. But to say that objective morality is grounded in a supernatural paradigm is tantamount to saying that an unknown, alleged metaphysical entity X exists; and that this entity X is such that its mere existence confers objective moral values upon the physical world. This, however, is not an explanation. The problem with the supernaturalism’s position is that their argument is based on dubious premises, i.e., that a supernatural paradigm exists and that without it there cannot be objective morality. But there is no reason to assume that that explanation is a total explanation. For, what good is to say that an intelligence, or God, or what not, is the uncaused cause which is the paradigm for morality? If I ask who or what created that entity, the natural answer is that entity is eternal and logically necessary. But this in my view is explanatory deficient.

The issue of whether objective morality is founded on natural or supernatural ground may never be settled. It is an issue that can hardly be concluded here. I think that there are so many possibilities to be contemplated as to what grounds objective morality, that I find it too facile to declare that objective morality requires a supernatural foundation. If we ask whether the naturalist account offers a superior explanation than the supernaturalist, I believe that the answer is that naturalism offers a more compelling argument toward the foundation of objective moral values than supernaturalism. The naturalist account in my view has the upper hand on this issue. The case for the natural foundation of objective moral values is a cumulative one. Namely, in my discussion, I proposed that there are viable grounds for the foundation of objective moral values without appealing to supernatural explanations. First, if naturalism does not prove to be sufficient as a total explanation for the foundation of objective morality, at least it is the more plausible one when compared against supernaturalism. That is to say, naturalism makes claims that can be verified, unlike the claims of supernaturalism, which rely upon ethereal and unscientific concepts. For example, biological evolution gives a viable account of how human animals’ characteristics give them intrinsic moral value and the possibility to determine, with respect to those characteristics, a set of objective moral values.

Secondly, naturalism has the upper hand on this issue because it offers sophisticated ethical systems that need not be supported by a deity or supernatural entity. Moreover, naturalism offers a rich philosophical framework for objective morality in that it can resort to a pluralistic applied ethics. Systems such as Kantianism, veil of ignorance, the social contract, utilitarianism, consequentialism, and so on, all have merit and are viable sources of morality based upon objective values shared among rational beings. Thirdly, the quest for a “total explanation” is a chimera. Science is full of such examples. Take the famous double-slit experiment. What it shows is that at the sub-atomic level, matter seems to behave counter-intuitively. From our perspective, to say that something is both a wave and a particle is rather mystifying. Or to say that a particle is simultaneously present in 2 different places makes no sense at all. These puzzling examples require total explanations. But the explanation may or may not come to us. In the meantime, on another level, we do not cease to function or stop following rules. We still have an explanation for many phenomena that surround us, though we do not yet know why sub-atomic particles behave like they do.

But what about supernaturalism? I think it is the least plausible position for several reasons. First of all, it rests on an error that arises out of the abuse of grammar. It seeks an objective paradigm of morality. But when we look into the meaning of objective, we discover that a) objective can mean many things, that is, that the meaning of “objective” is rather subjective; and b) that if it is intended to mean “mind-independent,” it fails to make sense. For, to say that murder, lying, cheating and what not are objectively evil regardless of whether humans exist, or that they are objectively wrong on Saturn, is utterly meaningless. If murder lying, cheating etc. are wrong, they are wrong insofar as certain organisms with certain apparatuses and qualities exist and are able to determine what is good or evil with respect to those characteristics.

Secondly, the argument that the foundation of morality is supernatural is based on premises that are themselves dubious. One is the existence of God or a god or a metaphysical entity. But it seems that what is typical in theology is to use the notion of objective morality to prove the existence of God, and at the same time to use the existence of God to prove objective morality. At any rate, if the paradigm of morality is not God, supernaturalism still needs to prove the existence of a disembodied mind, which has not been a very successful endeavor in the history of philosophy. Furthermore, even if we grant the possibility of disembodies consciousness, it would still be unclear how a disembodied entity that exists beyond the physical world, outside space and time, is responsible for the objectivity of moral values in our spatio-temporal, physical world. Many questions arise: namely, how is an entity removed from reality makes morality objective? Since there allegedly is an entity that is intrinsically moral, isn’t it possible that other entities that are intrinsically moral—namely, human beings—can exist in the universe?

Thirdly, the position of supernaturalism rests upon other dubious premises, a) that there must be a paradigm of objective moral values, and b) that without a paradigm of morality, moral values cannot be objective. These premises are dubious because they imply that supernaturalism has surveyed all naturalistic accounts for morality. But this cannot be true. On naturalism, there is a plurality of ethical systems that work without the assumption of a metaphysical paradigm of objective moral values. These systems offer viable naturalistic accounts as to how morality can be objective by showing that certain features of our nature dictate objective moral obligations. Furthermore, these above mentioned systems show that to adopt morality is not only a sound prudential decision, but also logically consistent.


Author: Carlo Alvaro


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