So, I realize I'm a bit late to the party on this particular debate but, in my defense, I don't watch debates as much as I used to because (a) I don't have time and (b) I generally find them more frustrating than entertaining. Still, a friend posted a clip from a debate between Frank Turek (who I saw speak as an undergraduate at Fresno State) and David Silverman.
The friend is a Christian and was asking for opinions on the subject matter from atheist friends. I was on a break from working on a million different things (term paper on conceptual analysis; Ph.D. applications; thesis proposal...) and so I started watching the video. Maybe it was out of masochism, but I actually found myself engaged and frustrated enough to offer an extended comment. (As though I can leave any other kind of comment.)
First is the video.
Now for my comment.
I was prepared on seeing this to say that I think Silverman was making some obvious philosophical mistake or other. But I'm actually surprised. He articulates moral relativism well, and gets the major claims in the view mostly right. It's Turek who makes a bunch of embarrassing philosophical errors in a row.
Bear in mind here, I think moral relativism is mistaken. It's not a view I adhere to.
Turek's mistakes (which Silverman is either too nice or not quick enough or not allowed by the format to beat him up over) in chronological order:
0:15 - Premises of the initial question. "x is immoral." and "There is no objective morality." are perfectly commensurable judgments. Relativism does not mean that there are no true moral claims; it means that a moral claim is evaluated as being true or false relative to some entity. (e.g. moral code, emotive response, etc.) Silverman points this out, though too nicely for my taste.
0:45 - "Are you condemning someone else for having a different moral standard than you?" No. He's not condemning anyone, at this point, for holding a belief. He's condemning (taken weakly to mean "expressing disapproval of") an action.
1:30 - "You saying that their [sic] is a standard, or that there is no standard, objective, outside humanity to which we should obey. This might be the most egregious embarrassment in the entire mess, partly because it requires not only not understanding relativism, but also not having listened to Silverman's particular account of relativism earlier. There is a standard and there is no objective standard. The standard is, according to Silverman's previous characterization, subjective.
1:40 - "[We are responsible] to ourselves and to our society." OK. I said Dave gets relativism mostly right. This is where he starts to get a bit confusing with regard to which version of relativism he's espousing. There's a version of moral relativism where the claims are evaluated relative to a moral code (i.e. a social fact) or a version where they've [sic] evaluated relative to personal preferences. (i.e. something subjective) He starts to bounce from the latter, which is his view at the beginning of the video, to the former, which is more palatable to realists. (Maybe he thinks it will be more accessible to Turek, in which case, he was being far too optimistic.)
2:30 - "But it's just a preference." This is where Turek seems to be missing the boat entirely, and where Silverman situates himself again in the subjective, rather than social, relativist position. It's a preference which acts as the basis for subjective moral judgments. The role that it plays in moral judgment is what's important on this account, and using "just" ignores that role. On the subjective account, our subjective moral judgments (formed by our preferences) undergird the truth value for moral claims. There's no "just" about it.
2:35 - "If it's just an opinion then I don't know why you condemn..." So long as "condemn" means "make a negative moral judgment about" then the answer to this question is obvious. Dave makes the moral judgment because of his preferences; further, he maintains that the moral judgment is true in virtue of those preferences.
It's hard to understand Turek's bafflement at 2:50, since it isn't as though Silverman is biting a new bullet here. He's been saying this the entire time. The schema is straight out of an introductory ethics textbook: I make a judgment about x. That judgment about x is either true or false. What facts make my judgment true or false? Find the facts and solve for the truth value.
Anyone who has a truth-functional view of ethics (and relativists pretty much have to because it's part of the definition of being a relativist) adheres to this schema. There are theories of ethics in which ethical judgments are neither true nor false, but none of those are on the table here.)
3:10 - "... we say we have no right, but that implies a moral standard too." No. No it doesn't. Rights are established as a matter of social fact; they are not subjectively constituted, even on the relativist view. Silverman actually hits this out of the park. ("Societal right" isn't a technical term, but who cares? It gets the point across.)
3:35 - "... then there is no real way to condemn the Nazi's for what they did." Silverman is actually really nice in his response here, and it's definitely for pragmatic reasons. He wants to get the point across that this is an important issue, and a difficult one for his position. In moral relativism, conflicting judgments are a serious problem, and that's an interesting and important philosophical question for the view.
On the other hand, the actual claim that Turek makes is based on an attempt to avoid equivocating by tossing the word "real" in as though it changes the tone of "condemnation" from the mode of making a moral judgment (based on preference, in Silverman's account) to the mode of absolute, objective and certain condemnation guaranteed (? - probably not, but Turek would like to believe this) by hard-line realists.
3:55 - Turek bait-and-switches. "See, your view has this serious philosophical difficult, [sic] and my view doesn't have that difficult, therefore my view is [probably] right." Seems like decent debating; unacceptable even at the undergraduate level in philosophy.
4:30 "The fact that people have abused morality [sic] shows that morality is relative." This is the first thing in the debate that Silverman says that is obviously false and embarrassing. (Those are no the same thing; this just happens to be both.) It obviously does not follow (and could not follow) from an analysis that systems are subject to abuse, even systematic abuse, that another (sometimes conjoined) system is not objectively grounded.
4:35 - "No, you're confusing sociology and morality." No, he's not. He's just saying that something about the way that an empirical fact informs our concepts that [sic] turns out to be false. There's no domain error going on. It's all ethics.
... [end of quote]
So, I took my friend's question to be a genuine request for thoughts, and I gave as many as I could come up with in a short stream of consciousness during a break from doing the philosophy I'm more actively engaged in. (i.e. not ethics)
But later I went back and looked at a few other comments, left by a mutual friend, and I noticed that my friend had posted the link from another page, that of Mr. Scott Klusendorf. I found the comments on that page... well... you'll find out in a minute.
To give a quick sampling:
[Redacted]: And Silverman just doesn't get it... dude needs to take a philosophy class... or maybe a class in logic.
Scott Klusendorf: Silverman would do better if he took the approach of Mackey, et al, and simply asserted that objective morals exist as brute facts of the universe. That wouldn't get him around the grounding problem (i.e. if morals exist as accidental features of the universe, why obey them?), but at least he could dodge the painful "gasp" moment.
Scott Klusendorf: Michael Shermer is much more clever than Silverman. The former tries to dodge the problem by confusing epistemology with ontology. He'll (rightly) claim that atheists are perfectly capable of recognizing moral obligations and fulfilling them. True, but that's not the issue. At issue is how we ground those moral obligations that theists and non-theists both recognize. No doubt Frank was ready for the trick had Silverman gone there.
[Redacted]: Arrogance and condescension seem to be common characteristics of many modern atheists. The recent Krauss vs. Craig debates in Australia are an excellent example. For me, it's a good reminder to remain gracious and respectful in the midst of deep disagreement or even outright personal attacks (such as the case of Lawrence Krauss attacking William Lane Craig). For us, we're not trying to 'defeat' our opponents, we're trying to save them.
I couldn't help myself... I just couldn't. There are a few triggers that got tripped here, all at once, and with some degree of force.
Also, the thread from which the video is taken (since it does link to Klusendorf's wall) is the reason I've taken pain to be so exhaustive here. It embodies both things that lead me to my deep disapproval (both as an academic and a human being) of "apologists."
1.) Individual commenters drip with condescension in their analysis of Silverman, suggesting that he lacks even a basic understanding of philosophy.
2.) Simultaneously, they illustrate a profound ignorance even of the people that they invoke. Klusendorf himself writes "Silverman would do better if he took the approach of Mackey [...] that objective morals exist as brute facts of the univrse." Has he ever read J.L. Mackey? Mackey's most famous contribution to philosophy is his extensive defense of moral anti-realism and moral skepticism. Mackey literally opens his magnum opus with: "There are no objective moral values." A famous claim I didn't even have to go to my bookshelf to double-check because it's on his wikipedia page. (I didn't even need to consult John, my personal Mackie scholar for exegesis.
With that in mind, the additional notes are important. First, because they illustrate the unfortunate fact that your approach is uncommon. Second, because they draw attention to what's become one of the resonant themes of our conversations over the last several months about my (admittedly very high) expectations for serious engagement in contrast to what I encounter in apologetics, whether they be pro-life or Christian.
I realize that, in these sorts of exchanges, I often come off as (at best) pedantic and (at worst) condescending and obnoxious. I realize this isn't an effective rhetorical strategy; I'm not in a debate. Rather, I'm giving my opinion, with inflections that illustrate my attitude. These sorts of exercises are absurd.
If you're going to criticize someone for being intellectually lazy, Scott, perhaps it is best not to assert that a relevant thinker made or supported a claim, when his legacy is attacking that claim. (Perhaps, more radically, it would be good to have read him? Maybe that is too much to ask.)
If you're going to debate aggressively against a point, Frank, perhaps it is sensible to listen to the position being presented, so as to not force the person you're talking to into painful redundancy. Even without a solid philosophical foundation, that goes a long way.
It is hard to feel something other than disappointment and frustration in these cases, and those emotions are more playfully manifested as condescension, preferable to classical rambling.