How do you help someone who claims that there are no objective moral values and obligations? I have found that when specific examples of morally abhorrent behavior, like torturing toddlers for sport, are brought to their attention, most people’s moral intuitions are brought to the surface and they recognize that they do believe in objective moral values and obligations after all.
Some people get the wrong idea though about what I’m doing and think it is an appeal to a ‘majority is right’ type of argument. But this is a misunderstanding. I’m not claiming that since most people think torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong, that therefore that makes it morally wrong. My approach is not only not the ‘majority is right’ argument, it is not even an argument at all.
I am not trying to ‘show’ or persuade people through evidence and argument. Rather I am employing a strategy to help people experience a direct awareness of the truth so that they will ‘know’ that torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong and that everyone should agree. But what about those who still disagree?
I know you are out there. I can hear you!
Not too long ago, I had a few particularly persistent questioners following a couple of lectures I gave on university campuses on arguments for the existence of God. Even though I gave three arguments, and two of them included some very interesting features about the early universe, almost all the questions were about the moral argument. In particular they questioned how I know that objective moral values and obligations exist.
After prompting them to think about atrocities like the Holocaust, and Apartheid, and horrible actions like raping little girls or torturing toddlers for sport, these students still were not persuaded that objective moral values and obligations existed.
I decided to use an illustration. I said, “What if a bunch of guys walked into our lecture hall and said, ‘You people might think torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong but me and my buddies think it is great fun!’ How should we respond to that? Should we throw our hands up and conclude, ‘Oh, no, I guess morality is relative to subjective opinions after all?’
No, of course not. We should think that there is something wrong with those guys! They are not functioning properly. In fact what do we call people who do not think torturing toddlers for sport is morally wrong?” After a moment of silence the answer came back from a few students – “Psychopaths!” “Right”, I said. “Anyone who claims torturing children for sport is not objectively wrong is not functioning properly morally. We rightly call someone like that a psychopath.”
That seemed to make a difference. The remaining few doubters seemed to realize that their choice was to accept that torturing toddlers for sport was an example of an objective moral value and obligation that was being violated, or to put themselves in the same moral category as psychopaths. My point all along of course was not that they were psychopaths, but that they weren’t actually relativists after all!
My point all along of course was not that they were psychopaths, but that they weren’t actually relativists after all!
I don’t know for sure if they were fully persuaded, but I do know that their questions stopped. By the looks on their faces, I suspect that maybe their moral intuitions had finally broken through to the surface and they were beginning to recognize that they did believe in some objective moral values and obligations after all – especially that torturing toddlers for sport was morally wrong.
What do you think of my approach to helping people see that they aren’t moral relativists as much as they think they are? Did it help you?
These last 5 blog posts have all been about one part of the moral argument for God’s existence – the premise that objective moral values and obligations exist, and how we know this is the case. In the process I have argued for our ability to directly experience some moral truths through our moral sense. This is counter to the empiricist assumptions of our culture, but I believe it is true nevertheless.