This article was originally published on Thinking Matters Talk, and is in the public domain ⇒
Samuel Skinner has been trying to articulate and defend a non-theistic version of ethics in the comment thread of ‘The Inherent Value of Human Life’. Since I don’t think that debate is proving fruitful, I’m going to undercut it with a new argument which follows on from that original article.
Samuel has conceded that the universe, in toto, is amoral: that is, that is has no moral properties at all. In his own words:
I am admitting the universe is amoral […] The universe is entirely amoral. After all, none of its component parts are moral and they do not have any emergent properties that make the universe any different. To claim it is anything but amoral is similar to claiming that for any other inaminate object.
It seems to me that this theory of ethics relies on the fairly generic idea of value conference. This is the notion that things only obtain value when we confer it on them. Value can take many forms—we could be talking about moral value (rightness), or teleological value (purpose), or epistemic value (meaning), or whatever. But the general idea is the same. The universe itself does not have value. Its constituent parts do not have value. They’re all just various amalgamations of matter and energy—and value isn’t a property of matter or energy. Therefore, if anything in the universe is to have value, that value must be conferred, rather than existing inherently in it.
Obviously, under a non-theistic view, value conference is done by sentient beings. Particularly of interest to us is the value conference performed by human beings. Under a non-theistic view, value conference does not involve (or need not involve) a deity of any kind—human value conference is sufficient. Put another way, value conference can be subjective, such that values are conferred by individuals; there is no need for an objective value-conferrer like God.
Now, if it can be shown that subjective value conference fails as a thesis, then the entire basis for non-theistic ethics (and epistemology and teleology) falls apart. If subjective value conference is intrinsically incoherent or irrational or impossible in some way, then it is clear that there are no grounds for whatever values non-theists believe exist—including moral values.
The form of the argument
What I’m going to show is that non-theists have no grounds for values. The kinds of grounds I have in mind are ontological, and not epistemological. In other words, I’m talking about whether or not, and how, values actually exist in the way that non-theists assert. I’m not talking about whether or not, and how, we can know about them. If you want to comment in this thread, make sure that you mark this distinction.
What I’m going to show is that subjective value conference is basically self-refuting. In this post, I will be focusing mostly on moral values, since that’s what’s at issue in the current debate with Samuel. I am somewhat indebted to Bill Vallicella, whose argument from meaning I am emulating.
The argument outlined
Under the non-theist’s view, some action has some moral value only if that value is conferred on it by some person. Now, the action, by the non-theist’s own admission, is intrinsically valueless. In terms of analysis as a physical system in the universe, it has no value, because value is not a property of physical systems. So the action only gains value upon the act of conference.
The problem for the non-theist is that, under his own view, the act of value conference itself is as intrinsically valueless as the action which it’s supposed to confer value upon. In that case, the question reasonably arises, how can a valueless act of conference nonetheless confer value?
The obvious answer which presents itself is that perhaps the act of conference has value conferred upon it in turn by some other act of conference. But this only pushes the problem back a step, leading to an infinite regress. That second act of conference would also be intrinsically valueless, requiring another act of conference—and so on ad infinitum.
The alternative, that value-conference is itself a valueless process, does not constitute any kind of explanation at all. It’s self-evidently absurd, and may even lead to conclusions which the non-theist would himself deny. An explanation of the origin of values ought to at least explain what it is about the process of value conference that actually confers value. If the action of value conference is, in the final analysis, a physical system, then value is not an intrinsic part of that process. What, then, about the process confers value? Whence cometh value?
Furthermore, if the act of conferring value is a process which does not itself involve value, then what distinguishes a valueless process which confers value from a valueless process which does not? It seems very unclear why such a process is even needed for there to be value, if there is to be value. It’s as if value “just exists” in the universe—but that is the very conclusion which the non-theist denies.
The typical response to this sort of argument is that value is an emergent property, just like love or art or intelligence or whatever. Non-theists often, rather ironically, try to put pressure on this argument by saying that it would reduce to non-existence all these things which we consider so important. Therefore, it must be the case that these things really do exist, but as emergent properties—of intelligence, for example; which is itself an emergent property of physical systems. But that’s the very point of the argument: to show that, under a non-theistic view, these things really don’t exist. Trying to put pressure on the argument by emphasizing its conclusion is therefore a tad naive. All the non-theist is doing is pointing out the very conclusion being argued, but disagreeing because it’s plainly absurd. But of course it’s absurd—the argument is of the form reductio ad absurdum; a “bringing back to absurdity”—a form of argument constituting a disproof of some proposition (in this case non-theism) by showing that it leads to absurd or untenable conclusions.
Appealing to emergence, as if this refutes the argument, is just like appealing to magic. It is not merely an admission that the non-theistic view of reality has no explanation for the existence of value (in marked contradistinction to the theistic view), but also an admission that non-theists would rather appeal to magic than to the clear and rational theistic explanation. As Paul Manata puts it,
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil & bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting
Lizard’s leg & howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell broth boil and bubble.
Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1
The crone throws the wing of a bat and the eye of a newt into the cauldron, mixes it up, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial “protection” or “love” or “safe trip” or “powerful trouble” spell or charm.
Likewise, take the physicalist. That crone, Mammy Nature, mixes a few billions neurons, synapses, and some firing c-fibers, into that cauldron called your noggin, and voilà, you have the emergence of some mystical and immaterial mind with beliefs and intentionality and thoughts.
When appeals to the “mustbebraindidit” argument are made, I’m going to point out that this has a name: The bat wing and eye of newt fallacy.
Although my argument can no doubt be fleshed out and refined some, it is sufficient for now to undercut the value theories of Samuel Skinner, and any non-theist, by showing that they are, under his own view, non-existent or meaningless or impossible. If his own belief system provides no mechanism by which values can actually exist—that is, no ontological grounds for values—then it is pointless for him to try to defend his particular value system. Any such defense contradicts itself. He is, like all non-theists, tacitly borrowing theistic presuppositions even in presenting his non-theistic notions of how ethics work.
As for the Christian, he affirms that value actually does exist as a basic property of reality, grounded in the immutable and ontologically necessary God of Christianity.