Tag Archives: Ethics

Utilitarianism and the Moral Life by J. P. Moreland

I found this essay on After All, but it looks like their site is not working well, so I’m just going to steal it and post it here, in case it disappears completely. This is one of my favorite short essays on utilitarianism, and it’s a wonder that the thing can’t stay up somewhere. Well, it will have a home here now. I’d be surprised to see anyone else be this awesome in a measly 1000 words as Dr. Moreland is below.

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Utilitarianism and the Moral Life

What Is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism (also called consequentialism) is a moral theory developed and refined in the modern world by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). It can be defined as follows:

An action or moral rule is right if and only if it maximizes the amount of nonmoral good produced in the consequences that result from doing that act or following that rule compared with other acts or rules open to the agent.

By focusing on three features of utilitarianism, we can clarify this definition.

(1) Utilitarian theories of value.

What is a nonmoral good? Utilitarians deny that there are any moral actions or rules that are intrinsically right or wrong. But they do believe in objective values that are nonmoral.

Hedonistic utilitarians say that the only intrinsic good is pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Quantitative hedonists (Bentham) say that the amount of pleasure and pain is the only thing that matters in deciding between two courses of action, I should do the one that produces the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain (measured by factors like the duration and intensity of the pleasure). Qualitative hedonists (Mill) say that pleasure is the only intrinsic good, but the type of pleasure is what is important, not the amount. They would rank pleasures that come from reading, art, and friendship as more valuable than those that come from, say, a full stomach.

Pluralistic utilitarians
say there are a number of things that have intrinsic, nonmoral value: pleasure, friendship, health, knowledge, freedom, peace, security, and so forth. For pluralists, it is not just the pleasure that comes from friendship that has value but also friendship itself.

Currently, the most popular utilitarian view of value is subjective preference utilitarianism. This position says it is presumptuous and impossible to specify things that have intrinsic nonmoral worth. So, they claim, intrinsic value ought to be defined as that which each individual subjectively desires or wants, provided these do not harm others. Unfortunately, this view collapses into moral relativism.

(2) Utilitarians and maximizing utility.

Utilitarians use the term utility to stand for whatever good they are seeking to produce as consequences of a moral action (e.g., “pleasure” for the hedonist, “satisfaction of subjective preference” for others). They see morality in a means-to-ends way. The sole value of a moral action or rule is the utility of its consequences. Moral action should maximize utility. This can be interpreted in different ways, but many utilitarians embrace the following: the correct moral action or rule is the one that produces the greatest amount of utility for the greatest number of people.

(3) Two forms of utilitarianism: act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.

According to act utilitarianism, an act is right if and only if no other act available maximizes utility more than the act in question. Here, each new moral situation is evaluated on its own, and moral rules like “don’t steal” or “don’t break promises” are secondary The moral agent must weigh available alternatives and choose the one that produces the best consequences. Rule utilitarianism says that correct moral actions are done in keeping with correct moral rules, However, no moral rule is intrinsically right or wrong. Rather, a correct moral rule is one that would maximize utility if most people followed it as opposed to following an alternative rule. Here, alternative rules (e.g., “don’t lie” vs. “don’t lie unless doing so would enhance friendship”) are compared for their consequences, not specific actions.

What Is Wrong with Utilitarianism?

Several objections show the inadequacy of utilitarianism as a normative moral theory.

First, utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that are clearly immoral. Consider the case of a severely deformed fetus. The child is certain to live a brief, albeit painless life. He or she will make no contribution to society. Society, however, will bear great expense. Doctors and other caregivers will invest time, emotion, and effort in adding mere hours to the baby’s life. The parents will know and love the child only long enough to be heartbroken at the inevitable loss. An abortion negates all those “utility” losses. There is no positive utility lost. Many of the same costs are involved in the care of the terminally ill elderly. They too may suffer no pain, but they may offer no benefit to society. In balancing positives and negatives, and excluding from the equation the objective sacredness of all human life, we arrive at morally repugnant decisions. Here deontological and virtue ethics steer us clear of what is easier to what is right.

Second, in a similar way, utilitarianism denies the existence of supererogatory acts. These are acts of moral heroism that are not morally obligatory but are still praiseworthy. Examples would be giving 75 percent of your income to the poor or throwing yourself on a bomb to save a stranger. Consider the bomb example. You have two choices — throwing yourself on the bomb or not doing so. Each choice would have consequences and, according to utilitarianism, you are morally obligated to do one or the other depending on which option maximized utility. Thus, there is no room for acts that go beyond the call of morality.

Third, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of human rights and human dignity. If enslaving a minority of people, say by a lottery, would produce the greatest good for the greatest number, or if conceiving children only to harvest their parts would do the same, then these could he justified in a utilitarian scheme. But enslavement and abortion violate individual rights and treat people as a means to an end, not as creatures with intrinsic dignity as human beings. If acts of abortion, active euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and so forth maximize utility, then they are morally obligatory for the utilitarian. But any moral system that makes abortion and suicide morally obligatory is surely flawed.

Finally, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of motives and character. We should praise good motives and seek good character because such motives and character are intrinsically valuable. But utilitarianism implies that the only reason we should praise good motives instead of bad ones, or seek good character instead of bad character, is because such acts would maximize utility. But this has the cart before the horse. We should praise good motives and blame bad ones because they are good or bad, not because such acts of praising and blaming produce good consequences.

In sum, it should be clear that utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory. Unfortunately, ours is a pragmatic culture and utilitarianism is on the rise. But for those of us who follow Christ, a combination of virtue and deontological ethics is a more adequate view of common sense morality found in natural law and of the moral vision contained in the Bible.

How to respond to an atheist who complains about slavery in the Bible

I often hear atheists going on and on about how the Bible has this evil and that evil. Their favorite one seems to be slavery. Here are three things I say to atheists when they push this objection.

The Bible and slavery

First, you should explain to them what the Bible actually says about slavery. And then tell them about the person responsible for stopping slavery in the UK: a devout evangelical named William Wilberforce.

Here’s an article that works.

Excerpt:

We should compare Hebrew debt-servanthood (many translations render this “slavery”) more fairly to apprentice-like positions to pay off debts — much like the indentured servitude during America’s founding when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World. Then they became free.

In most cases, servanthood was more like a live-inemployee, temporarily embedded within the employer’s household. Even today, teams trade sports players to another team that has an owner, and these players belong to a franchise. This language hardly suggests slavery, but rather a formal contractual agreement to be fulfilled — like in the Old Testament.3

Atheism and moral judgments

Second, inform them that moral values are not rationally grounded on atheism. In an accidental universe, there is no way we ought to be. There is no design for humans that we have to comply with. There are no objective human rights, like the right to liberty (that would block slavery) or the right to life (that would block abortion). Although you may find that most atheists act nicely, the ones who really understand what atheism means and live it out consistently are not so nice.

Famous atheist Richard Dawkins has previously written this:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. 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 that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

(“God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American, November, 1995, p. 85)

When atheists like Dawkins talk about morality, you have to understand that they are pretending. To them, morality is just about personal preferences and cultural conventions. They just think that questions of right and wrong are arbitrary. Things that are wrong in one time and place are right in another. Every view is as right as any other, depending on the time and place. That’s atheist morality.

What’s worse than slavery? Abortion!

Third, you should ask the atheist what he has done to oppose abortion. Abortion is worse than slavery, so if they are sincere in thinking that slavery is wrong, then they ought to think that abortion is wrong even more. So ask them what they’ve done to oppose the practice of abortion. That will tell you how sincere they are about slavery.

Here’s atheist Richard Dawkins explaining what he’s done to stop abortion:

That’s right. The head atheist supports killing born children.

William Lane Craig debates atheist Lawrence Krauss: Does God Exist?

British Spitfire and German Messerschmitt Me 109 locked in a dogfight
British Spitfire and German Messerschmitt Me 109 locked in a dogfight

Here is the video from the third debate from Dr. William Lane Craig’s speaking tour in Australia.

Format:

  • William Lane Craig (15 min)
  • Lawrence Krauss (15 min, but was actually 21:40)
  • Moderated discussion
  • Question and answer

Dr. Graham Oppy, the moderator, is a well-known atheist philosopher. He let Dr. Krauss speak for 21 minutes and 40 seconds, which is why my summary of Krauss is so long.

The video:

Summary

After careful consideration, I decided not to be snarky at all in this summary. What you read below is what happened. There may be some small mistakes, but I will fix those if people tell me about them. I also included some quotes and timestamps for the more striking things that Dr. Krauss said.

The debate itself starts at 4:50 with Dr. Craig’s opening speech. He does use slides to show the structure of his arguments.

Dr. Craig’s opening speech. (4:50)

  1. The kalam cosmological argument:
    • God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe
    • The Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem supports the absolute beginning of the universe
    • Even if our universe is part of a multiverse, the multiverse itself would have to have an absolute beginning
    • Speculative cosmologies try to challenge the Big Bang theory, but none of them – even if true – can establish that the past is eternal
    • Only two types of things could explain the origin of spece, time, matter and energy – either abstract objects or minds
    • Abstract objects do not cause effects, but minds do cause effects (we do it ourselves)
    • A mind is the best explanation for the origin of the universe
  2. The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics:
    • The underlying structure of nature is mathematical – mathematics is applicable to nature
    • Mathematical objects can either be abstract objects or useful fiction
    • Either way, there is no reason to expect that nature should be linked to abstract objects or fictions
    • But a divine mind that wants humans to understand nature is a better explanation for what we see
  3. The cosmic fine-tuning for the existence of intelligent life
    • There are two kinds of finely-tuned initial conditions: 1) cosmological constants and 2) quantities
    • These constants and quantities have to be set within a narrow range in order to permit intelligent life
    • There are three explanations for this observation: law, chance or design
    • Law is rejected because they are put in at the beginning or matter – they don’t emerge from matter
    • Chance must be rejected, because they odds are just too long unless you appeal to a world-ensemble
    • We do not observe what the world ensemble hypothesis predicts that we should observe
    • Design is the best explanation for finely-tuned constants and quantities
  4. The existence of objective moral values and duties
    • Our experience of morality (values and duties) is that it is objectively real and incumbent on us
    • When someone goes into a classroom and shoots at innocent children, that is objectively wrong
    • On naturalism, moral values and moral duties do not exist – they are conventional and variable by time and place
    • The best explanation for the existence of objective moral values and duties is that God exists
  5. The historicity of the resurrection of Jesus
    • There are three widely-accepted facts that are best explained by the resurrection hypothesis
    • 1) the empty tomb, 2) the post-mortem appearances, 3) the early church’s belief in the resurrection
    • Naturalistic attempts to explain these 3 boilerplate facts fail
    • The best explanation of the 3 minimal facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead
  6. The immediate experience of God
    • Belief in God is a “properly basic” belief – rational even without arguments because of experience of God

Dr. Krauss’ opening speech. (21:12)

Slides: (1234567891011121314)

  1. Religious pluralism I
    • There have been lots of different gods created by people through history
    • We’ve gotten rid of all of them by understanding how the universe works by doing science
    • Religion is just stories, and the stories are inconsistent with how the universe works
  2. Progress of naturalistic science I
    • Newtonian physics refutes the idea that angels push planets around
    • Darwinian evolution refutes design arguments, including the one that Dr. Craig presented (24:10)
    • Biochemistry hasn’t explained how life originated, but we will have the solution soon
    • Physics shows us that matter can be created and destroyed without need a God
    • Physics shows us that universes can be created and destroyed “no problem”
  3. Religious pluralism II
    • Since we have been able to disprove all the gods we’ve invented, why hang on to the last one
    • It’s unlikely that the God that Dr. Craig presented exists, because we disproved all the others he didn’t present
  4. Hiddenness of God
    • There is a complete lack of evidence for the other 999 gods, so how likely is it that the God Dr. Craig presented exists
  5. Religious pluralism III
    • There are inconsistencies between various religions, so therefore there can be no religion that is right
  6. Progress of naturalistic science II
    • Peasants had a very low level of knowledge about the world and they believed in God
    • But our level of knowledge has increased over time, so we shouldn’t believe in God now
    • Peasants thought that the Earth orbited the Sun, but this is now known to be false
    • The Scriptures said that the Earth orbited the Sun, but now we know that’s false from science
  7. Christianity plagiarizes from other religions I
    • There is nothing new or special about Jesus
    • He’s just as unpleasant as all the other gods
    • Everything particular to Jesus occurs in other religions
  8. Catholics are inconsistent about what they believe
    • I’ll bet most Catholics don’t really believe in transubstantiation
    • I’ll bet most Catholics don’t really believe in the virgin birth
  9. The resurrection is copied from many other religions
    • Dionysus, Osiris, etc.
  10. There is no evidence for the resurrection
    • The stories about Jesus were written “decades or hundreds of years after the fact”
    • The stories are inconsistent with each other
    • Dr. Craig tells me that historical Jesus scholars all accept that the resurrection happened
    • That’s like saying that all alien abductions experts agree that alien abductions happened
    • It’s unreasonable to think that the resurrection happened because no one saw it happen
    • I accept that people reported on appearances, but hallucination theory can explain that
  11. The timeline for the creation and incarnation are all wrong
    • The creation, planet formation, hominids, incarnation, etc. all take place in the wrong times
    • If God knew what he was doing, he would done everything at better times to be more efficient
  12. David Hume’s argument against miracles is sound
    • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – nothing wrong with this argument
    • Miracles are really just coincidences
    • Catholic apparitions at Lourdes disprove the historical argument that Dr. Craig made for the resurrection
  13. God is petty and jealous
    • God shouldn’t demand that we trust him, esteem him and consider his character when we make decisions
    • The atoning death of Jesus for the sins of the world also makes no sense
  14. Belief is based on geography
    • What you believe is clearly correlated with where you are born
    • There is even an Islamic clone of Dr. Craig who “uses the exact same arguments” that he does to prove Islam
    • Belief in God is decreasing in the Internet-accessible world
  15. Science can develop morals without God
    • Reason is able to guide our actions to be moral
    • Morality evolves over time, so there is no objective morality
    • Catholicism teaches things that are immoral
    • Some things are prohibited by biological revulsion, such as incest
    • But if a brother and sister have sex using condoms “is that morally wrong? I can’t say it is frankly” (37:24)
  16. Dr. Craig is irrational
    • “I came here convinced based on my past interactions and his writing that Dr. Craig was a dishonest Charlatan”
    • “Any argument that validates God is reasonable to him”
    • “And any argument against it is not only unreasonable but wrong and worth distorting”
    • “Because it must be wrong – he’s decided the answer in advance”
  17. Dr. Craig is immoral
    • Dr. Craig thinks it is OK for God to command that Canaanite children are killed
    • “So in fact if they were Canaanite children in that schoolroom that he talked about then it would be OK”
    • It’s not reasonable to justify genocide in that way, but Dr. Craig is willing to go to those lengths
  18. The cause of the origin of the space time universe need not be God
    • Dr. Craig says that if there is an explanation for the origin or space, time, matter and energy it must be God
    • But it could just as easily be turtles or Zeus
  19. Dr. Craig misrepresents the Borde Guth Vilenkin theorem
    • Alexander Vilenkin wrote me an e-mail that says that the theorem doesn’t work in all cases
    • “Dr. Craig is so convinced that these arguments must be true that he won’t listen to the fact that they’re not”
  20. Darwinian evolution explains the fine-tuning
    • “Life was fine tuned – we got rid of it with Darwin”
    • Mutation and natural selection explain the cosmic fine-tuning argument that Dr. Craig presented
  21. Suboptimal design disproves the fine-tuning argument
    • “We get back aches” therefore “This argument that [the universe] is fine-tuned for life is nonsense”
  22. William Lane Craig can be proven to exhibit homosexual behavior using logical arguments
    • Look, you can construct arguments that are clearly wrong
    • Premise 1: “All mammals exhibit homosexual behavior”
    • Premise 2: “William Lane Craig is a mammal”
    • Seems to be saying that logical arguments can prove false things “it’s nonsense”
  23. Dr. Craig distorted a podcast that some group made on pain receptors
    • Dr. Craig’s faith is so strong that it causes him to distort what this group said

Discussion: (44:35)

I will not be summarizing everything that was said, just a few main points.

The segment from 52:18 to 57:12 about the Vilenkin e-mail on the BVG theorem is a must-see. Krauss is standing up and gesticulating while Craig is calmly trying to quote a paper by Vilenkin that shows that Krauss is misrepresenting Vilenkin. Krauss constantly interrupts him. After a while, when Craig exposes him as having misrepresented Vilenkin and gets him to admit that all current eternal models of the universe are probably wrong, he quietens down and can’t even look at Craig in the face.

Cosmological argument:

  • Craig: The e-mail says any universe that is expanding, on average, requires a beginning
  • Craig: There are two models – Aguirre & Gratton and Carroll & Chen – where there is a period of contraction before the expansion
  • Craig: The two models are the ones cited in the e-mail that Dr. Krauss showed
  • Craig: In the very paper by Vilenkin that I cited, he says that both of those models don’t work
  • Krauss: (agitated and interrupting) Vilenkin said that they have to make an assumption about entropy that they have no rationale for
  • (as Craig starts to talk Krauss makes an exaggerated, disrespectful gesture and sits down in a huff)
  • Craig: Yes, an unwarranted assumption means that they don’t have EVIDENCE for their theories being correct
  • Krauss: (agitated and interrupting) “All the evidence suggests that the universe had a beginning but WE DON’T KNOW!!!!!!!” (raising his voice)
  • Craig: I’m not saying that we know that the universe had a beginning with certainty
  • Craig: I am saying that the beginning of the universe is more probably true than false based on the evidence we have
  • Craig: And you  agree with me about that – you think the universe had a beginning
  • Krauss: (agitated and interrupting) (Unintelligible)
  • Moderator: One at a time
  • Craig: In your Vilenkin e-mail slide, at the end of the paragraph where the two models are mentioned that Vilenkin specifically shows…
  • (I am guessing that Craig is going to ask why so much of what Vilenkin wrote has been cut out of the e-mail that Krauss showed)
  • Krauss: (agitated and interrupting) Because it was technical…
  • Moderator: Lawrence! Hang on a sec!
  • Craig: He specifically shows that these models are not past eternal, and that they require a beginning just like the others…
  • Krauss: (agitated and interrupting) We can do the math if you want
  • Craig: Now wait. I couldn’t help notice that there on your slide there was a series of ellipsis points indicating missing text…
  • Krauss: (agitated and interrupting) “Yeah, because it was technical!”
  • Craig: “I wonder what you deleted from the original letter”
  • Krauss: (agitated and interrupting) “I just told you!”
  • Craig: “Now wait. Could it have been something like this:  (reads a quote from Vilenkin) ‘You can evade the theorem by postulating that the universe was contracting prior to some time. This sounds as if there is nothing wrong with having contraction prior to expansion. But the problem is that a contracting universe is highly unstable. Small perturbations would cause it to develop all sorts of messy singularities, so it would never make it to the expanding phase.’
  • Craig: “That’s Vilenkin.”
  • Krauss: “In this paper, that’s absolutely right”
  • Krauss: But it’s ok for theories to assume things that we know are wrong – they are still good theories – it’s unknown
  • (Craig turns away and looks through his papers)
  • Craig: “Isn’t it true that the only viable quantum gravity models on order today involve a beginning – have a finite past?”
  • Krauss: “No”
  • Craig: “Well, can you give us one then”
  • Krauss: (talks about a variety of possible eternal models) “In my experience in science, all of them are probably wrong”
  • Krauss: “You know most theories are wrong, which is why, you know, it’s hard”
  • Craig: “Right”

I noticed that a huge number of atheist web sites are taking the Vilenkin quote that Krauss used out of context, like this one and this one. There are probably a lot more of them like that, which I think is interesting. That’s why we have these debates, I guess. To set the record straight about who accuses people of being dishonest, and who is actually dishonest.

Fine-tuning:

  • Krauss tried to argue that he had explained the fine-tuning with the Higgs particle, but Dr. Craig said that only applied to the cosmological constant, not all the other examples of fine-tuning. Krauss said that it wasn’t impressive that this universe permitted life and that “It would have been much more surprising if we evolved in a universe in which we couldn’t live”. Krauss argued the fine-tuning was only for “Life like us”. But Dr. Craig explained that the fine-tuning is what allows us to have the basics of any kind of life, like slow-burning stars, chemical diversity, etc. – things that are required for basic minimal life functions in any living system. Craig said that he was working with the current physical laws of this universe (F = ma, etc.) and that he was looking at what changed if we changed those even slightly. Krauss tried to say that if he changed things like the mass of particles then the strength of forces would change. (But the forces aren’t laws!) Krauss argued that the cosmological constant would be even better for life if it was zero, and Craig said that the life permitting range did include zero, but that the range of life-permitting values was narrow.

Jesus’ existence:

  • Craig reponded to the mystery religions charge, the charge that the evidence for the minimal facts is too late/too weak, the charge that grief visions explained the evidence better, and Hume’s argument against miracles. Craig brought up the early creed from 1 Cor 15:3-7 and explained to Krauss that it was 5 years after the events, and that Jewish standards of oral transmission were strong enough to ensure that the creed was reliable, and most of the eyewitnesses would still have been alive.

Audience Q and A: (1:21:09)

The first topic is the grounding of morality. Krauss agrees that there is no objective morality and no objective moral oughts. He also said that that standards of behavior are arbitrary, and that they change over time and they are adopted for promoting social order. Dr. Craig pressed the point that science itself would collapse without ethical values. It assumes them, but cannot ground them.

The next topic was free will. Krauss is a determinist. Craig asked him how he could reconcile moral responsibility with determinism.

The next topic was the effectiveness of mathematics. Krauss didn’t have an explanation for it and didn’t think it needed one. Then they got into whether the Genesis has been verified by science and whether it is meant to be taken literally.

The next topic was whether philosophy makes any progress. Craig gave the example of verificationism being rejected as too narrow, and self-refuting. Krauss: “I’m going to come to the defense of philosophy for the first time”. Craig: “That’s amazing!” Krauss said that science provides new knowledge. Craig said there were some things that could be known apart from science.

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