Can I Buy a Vowel? Joe Pettit and Godless Morality

My colleague Joe Pettit has posted a defense of theism that takes up the traditional Christian onto-theological response to the Euthyphro problem.

God is the Measure

Rather than speak of God as in some sense separate from the moral law, Pettit posits that God is the moral law. That way, there’s no dilemma when we ask about the primacy of justice or piety: since God is the measure of good and evil,  piety is justice. In the same way, anyone who grants that there are moral facts must accept that there is a God, because God is the measure of moral facts.

The argument seems to have the following structure:

  • 1. If there is an objective standard of right and wrong, then that standard cannot be human without being finite and changeable. (Otherwise, it would be limited in scope and subjected to whims and fashions, and what’s objective about that?)
  • 2. There is an objective standard of right and wrong.
  • 3. Therefore, there is an objective standard of right and wrong that is infinite and eternal.
  • 4. Let’s call it “God.”

Here’s Pettit:

the measure of moral truth requires judgment, and in so far as we are capable of erroneous judgment, we would have to be able to be able to ask why any particular agreed upon judgment of moral truth (assuming one could be found) were true; thus, only raising again the question of what that measure of moral truth is. […]

So why call any real measure of moral truth “God”?  The answer lies in both the scope and status of any real measure of moral truth.  The scope must be anywhere and anytime in the universe.  The scope must be as vast as any possible place a moral agent could make a moral choice (thus, this measure would be as true for critters on another planet as for humans).  The status of the real measure must be infallible.  If the measure were fallible, one would have to ask how one could tell the difference between a true and a false measure, and this would be impossible if the measure itself were fallible.  If the measure must be infinite and infallible, that’s enough (for now) to call the measure God.

There are a couple of problems here, the biggest of which is simply that Pettit never supplies a good reason for using the moniker “God” to describe an “infinite and infallible” measure of the right and wrong. Thus the title: why not add an ‘O’ and call this measure “the Good” like Iris Murdoch does in “On ‘God’ and ‘the Good’“? This avoids the charge of onto-theology, confusing Being with a being, and all that. Admittedly, Pettit is a process theologian at heart, but that just means his conception of ‘God’ is pretty distant from the one most people are referring to when they use that word. This is not the omnipotent, omniscient, omni-everything else God that Anselm promised us. This is not a God who answers prayers, makes miraculous interventions in human affairs, or has a divine plan. So on the surface, it looks like Pettit’s argument passes my “non-stringent” agnosticism test: I’m certainly not going to quibble overmuch about the number of vowels a person chooses to worship. After all, Jews don’t allow any vowels at all! 🙂

Temporal Issues

Pettit’s argument depends on his first premise, the claim that meaningful morality requires an infinite and eternal moral law. I’m not so sure that we should believe that “the Good” is eternal and unchanging, either, but on this, I’m biddable. I have two tentative concerns about time and morality. (I call them tentative because I haven’t settled on a theory of temporality in moral justification, yet.) Anyway, here goes:

The first concern is tied to the truth-conditions of future facts, a la Aristotle’s Sea Battle Tomorrow. Perhaps the past truth of contingent future facts should be rejected both for empirical propositionsand for moral propositions, such that we would reject as nonsensical the claim that the Holocaust was wrong before humans evolved. After all, before humans evolved, it was always possible that they wouldn’t, just as it was possible that they wouldn’t engage in ethnically-motivated mass murder.

Here, I think a predictable response is to say that the past truth of moral propositions is salvageable if we treat them as analytic a priori propositions: bachelors are unmarried men and murder is wrong. However, it’s not clear that there can be a true analytic a priori fact of the matter about bachelors or murder if there aren’t humans around to get married or murdered. Granted, given the appropriate modal framing, something nicely subjunctive like: “If autonomous subject evolve, and they murder each other in large numbers, that will be wrong.” But who exactly was formulating modal propositions in the moments after the Big Bang? In order for us to think clearly about the past truth of future contingents, we have to posit an intelligence available to makes judgments. Yet this positing may well lead us astray, if it turns out that morality is structured in certain particularistic ways. Pettit punts, and calls this infinite intelligent judger God; I think that that’s begging the question. In this sense, Pettit’s theology forecloses an important avenue of moral inquiry. That’s a problem for a fallibilist like me, even though the foreclosed routes (particularism, contractualism, constructivism, etc.) may in retrospect turn out to have been blind alleys.

My second tentative temporal concern is tied to the difficulty of judging historical injustice. In short, it’s possible that we should reject the present truth about moral facts in history. For instance, we all agree that right now genocide is wrong, but was it wrong to displace and destroy the Neanderthal “race”? Apparently there was some small amount of interbreeding, as well, which suggests that these conquests of ethnic cleansing probably included rape. (The self-undermining failure of such purity is a terribly tragic irony, much like it was in a more recent quest for ethnic purity.) Are those historical crimes against non-humans wrong? Why should we believe that they are?

It seems that Pettit would here fall back on the axiomatic claim that morality must be infinite in scope and unchanging in content. In defense of the timelessness of moral propositions, I think we can potentially say that those acts were wrong but aren’t adequately in the scope of our current judgments, much like we seem to want to reserve judgment about the Pentars:

imagine a race of extraterrestrial beings, the Pentars, who have no interest in friendship, love or happiness. Instead, the Pentars’ only goal is to maximize the total number of equilateral pentagons in the universe, and they move through space doing everything in their power to achieve this goal. (If a Pentar becomes too old to work, she is immediately killed and transformed into a pentagon herself.)

But for Pettit, our reservation of judgment is irrelevant to God’s judgment, and so we might say that God has the only opinion on the Neanderthals or the Pentars that matters. (God would also, of course, be to blame for creating a race of such inhumanly cruel and single-mindedly equilateral entitites.) This has the advantage of quelling the relativism that Knobe’s surveys threaten, but I’m not sure if we need such a dogmatic or ontologically-weighty defense of moral facts. In that vein, I’m working on a response to Steven Ross’s paper “The End of Moral Realism.” (For instance, I’m thinking about ways to dispute Pettit’s premise #1 by showing that a “human” moral measure can be infinite and unchanging. For now take a look at John D’s series on the paper available here: part 1part 2part 3. Don’t you just love his graphs!?!)


Other issues start piling up when we look more closely at Pettit’s use of measurement analogies. Probably, Pettit has a moral version of the Socratic response to Protagoras’s “man is the measure” problem in mind here. That would look something like this:

  • Q: If moral knowledge is reducible to moral opinion, then how can we avoid relativism?
  • A: We can only avoid relativism if we posit a “measure of measures,” in this case, God.

Again, we can quibble about how to spell it, but it seems reasonable to assume that we must have some standard against which to compare ourselves if we want to avoid the evils of nihilism, emotivism, relativism, and skepticism. Yet as I will show, Pettit’s argument fails. Here’s how.

Pettit introduces the issue using an interesting analogy between moral judgments and empirical measurements:

We need a real measure of moral truth just like we need real measures of something like length.  If I asked you to measure a line in terms of zots, you would likely ask me how long a zot is.  If I told you it does not matter how long a zot is, that you could decide for yourself how long a zot is, you would likely wonder about the point of measuring the line in the first place.  Now, if I asked 50 people to measure the same line in terms of zots, and I told all fifty that each of them could decide for themselves how long a zot is, then I would likely get 50 different answers about the length of the line.  None of those measures could meaningfully be considered a true indication of the length of the line.

This is a nice analogy, but the last sentence is false. In fact, the meaningfulness of the measurement does not depend upon the nominal length of a “zot.”

Consider the “cubit.” Genesis tells us that Noah’s Ark was 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. How big is that? We don’t know for sure. Is it a meaningful length? Yes!

You see, there wasn’t an antediluvian National Institute of Standards and Technology to police the size of rulers. So if you wanted to build something according to a plan, you used “natural” units, things you were likely to have on you. In the case of the cubit, the length involved is the length of your forearm, from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger. On the average man, that’s about eighteen inches. But it’s different for everybody.

Notice something: everyone is walking around with their own cubit! Does that mean that none of the things measured in cubits “could meaningfully be considered a true indication of length”? Of course not. In fact, the usefulness of a cubit is directly related to the way it allows us to reproduce our own measurements at need. So in measuring the same object, each of us will come up with a different number of cubits. and yet the measured length stays the same. Every measurement expressed in cubits will have a different nominal value, but the same actual value. Moreover, human fallibility is irrelevant here. It’s true that I might make an error in measuring, but that would be separate from some sort of error in the length of my forearm, and if we get fifty people together and translate their numbers into any standardized format (the Imperial yard, for instance, though any standard will do) we’ll be able to catch those kinds kinds of outliers and label them mistakes.

God’s Cubit

Of course, the failure of the “zot” analogy doesn’t preclude saying something related. Another way to read Pettit’s argument is as a kind of Platonism: everyone has their own unit of measurement, but there is still a true measure, an ideal limb from which each of our imperfect forearms is a crude copy. Perhaps God’s forearm is the true measure of length, just as God’s moral judgment is the true measure of right and wrong. Abstractly, this is of course possible. But in what sense is the ideal measure “ideal”?

Historically, cubits became standardized as a way of marking domination. The emperor or the king decreed that all measurements would be performed using the “royal cubit,” a unit derived from the sovereign’s own body. In the Egyptian case, the cubit that was promulgated was freakishly long. (This was probably a not-so-subtle piece of propaganda about the “long arm of the law,” or else something more vulgar akin to spreading the rumor that the king has a very large penis.) Yet most folks didn’t carry the king’s forearm around with them, so they either purchased a prefabricated measuring stick or they stuck to the practice of using their own personal forearms except when it was necessary to report the results in royal cubits, in which cases they’d need to do a conversion. Notice, they wouldn’t really be switching from false to true measurements, but rather from “pragmatically useful” measurements to “prudentially necessary to avoid public torture” measurements. On some views, that’s what God is doing with moral judgments.

What’s notable about such standardization is that while it eases communication and precision, it doesn’t increase accuracy. The king’s forearm wasn’t any more correct than the peasant’s forearm, was it?So we’re thrown back on the Euthyphro problem once again: why should we believe that God has a better grasp of right and wrong than we do? What’s more, on the theists view, God created tsunami and HIV: what have you or I done that’s that boneheaded or obnoxious? (Map? Meet territory: God made HIV, and researchers cured it!) Like the royal cubit, the divine moral judgment may be inhumanly cruel or inappropriate to the people who must actually measure right and wrong on a daily basis. Perhaps God should start taking notes from us!

Beyond Metrics to the Things Themselves!

Perhaps Pettit ought to say that God isn’t the “measure of measures,” but rather the thing measured, itself. This would be a better analogy: God is the thing missing in a murder and present in an act of altruistic self-sacrifice. (This is something like the Augustinean Neo-Platonist view, which appeals to me.) In this sense, Pettit’s “God” would be a kind of moral particle or field that emanates from actions, the stuff that is detected by our moral judgments. So we might say, for instance, that some people are better detectors of moral particles than others, that some people have “false positives” or “blind spots,” and that someone more outraged at a hangnail than at the death of innocents needs to recalibrate her moral particle detector. In every case there’s an absolutely right or wrong measure of the moral particles that each of us does our best to approximate on our own terms. Moral skeptics, subjectivists, nihilists, and relativists would be like climate change skeptics, unwilling or unable to detect moral emissions, and muddying the waters with their nonsensical objections.

Now is probably a good time to mention that Ronald Dworkin likes to call these moral particles “morons.” That’s because this talk of measuring and standardization really misses what’s important about moral questions and how we ought best to pursue them. Yet Dworkin has even harsher words for moral skeptics and emotivists, and for good reason:

We want to live decent, worthwhile lives, lives we can look back on with pride not shame. We want our communities to be fair and good and our laws to be wise and just. These are enormously difficult goals, in part because the issues at stake are complex and puzzling. When we are told that whatever convictions we do struggle to reach cannot in any case be true or false, or objective, or part of what we know, or that they are just moves  in a game of  language, or just  steam  from  the turbines  of  our emotions, or just  experimental  projects we  should  try  for size, to  see how we get on, or just  invitations to thoughts that we might find divert- ing or amusing or less boring  than the ways we used to think, we must reply that these denigrating suggestions are all false, just  bad philosophy. But  these are pointless, unprofitable, wearying interruptions, and we must hope that the leaden spirits of  our age, which nurture them, soon lift.

Dworkin has it exactly right: we don’t need to solve moral ontology to live moral lives, but bad moral ontology can hamper those efforts so we do need to catch moral ontological errors before they take root. To bastardize William James: if we want to know the truth, then we must avoid error! Down with relativism! (Back to Joshua Knobe’s relativism results: Knobe surveys a bunch of undergraduates to figure out what they believe, and then he repeats it back to them, with a bit of detail and scholarly heft. Isn’t that the definition of sophistry?)

There is, however, a flipside of this warning about moral ontology. Believing in something called “God” doesn’t adds anything useful to our moral inquiry, but it can subtract or undermine those inquiries when it commits us to a moral ontology that we ought to reject for reasons unrelated to theology.

The problem here is that Pettit isn’t trying to solve moral questions, he’s trying to prove the existence of God. Insofar as “God questions” are irrelevant to — but procedurally dependent on — moral inquiry, I think it’s safe to ignore questions of God’s existence. Pettit, on the other hand, is committed by his theology to a temporal claim about moral facts that worries me. I’m not saying that Pettit is wrong on the temporal point, but it worries me… and Pettit’s assertions haven’t soothed my anxieties.

Of course, it’s possible that he is right: zots and cubits aside, Pettit may have a point even if his analogies are off. If so, I think the charitable reading of his point is this: in order for “the Good” to have any meaning, it must both be personally relevant and universal in scope. Insofar as it is universal in scope, “the Good” has a metaphysical property that we cannot ignore. Insofar as “the Good” is personally relevant, it has to figure in a personal relationship. I don’t have enough information to evaluate that claim, although the evidence is arriving. Perhaps it is true that personifying “the Good” as “God” will ultimately assist us in our moral inquiry. All I can say for sure is that Pettit has yet to give us good reason to accept his conclusions.

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