Challenge: Intuition Can’t Prove Objective Moral Values

Posted: August 21, 2012 by Amy Hall in Truth Matters, Weekly Challenge

This week’s challenge is adapted from an objection sent by Doubting Eric:

You said that objective moral values are self-evidently true. How can we know this? Why would the fact that I intuit something to be true be considered evidence that it really is true? How would we be able to tell the difference between a truly objective moral value and a genetic adaptation that encourages moral behavior? They would both “feel” the same. You would “just know” that torturing babies for fun is wrong in the same way that you would if that was an objective moral truth. (The instinctual genetic origin of such a moral intuition or conscience could be easily demonstrated with examples from the wider animal kingdom.)

I don’t think we can tell the difference by our intuition. All we can really know is that WE PERSONALLY feel like this or that is the right thing to do. There is no reliable way of determining if there are moral values and duties that are actually objective.

Any ideas about how to respond to this one? Leave your thoughts below, then stick around for Thursday when we’ll hear Brett’s response.

  1. patricksenn says:

    I’m not sure how to answer this but I’ll give it a shot:

    He has a problem with our intuition and how we gain knowledge through intuition. I don’t know much about intuition but I’d say it has to do with our cognitive faculties. If our cognitive faculties do not give us true knowledge then we should not bother thinking about this whole issue, since we can’t trust it to give us true “evidence” of something really being true.

    My second point would be it does not matter how we perceive moral values, even if they are a genetic adaptation, there is still an oughtness to them that cannot be explained away by them being genetic. Morals are prescriptive, not descrpitive. The debate is not how we know them or why we know them, but rather about their reality, their being. Obviously we perceive them, now why are they there?

    I’m not writing this with certainty so if anyone has input or correction it’s appreciated 🙂

    • Alfred says:

      It seems some people are running ahead of the geneticist with the idea of intuitive moral behavior. As far I understand it, everyone in the world has the same gene makeup except for a percentage that is strictly individually assigned by family genetics; much like snowflakes, they look the same except when put under a microscope.
      Ask any veterinarian what an animal might be thinking. The closes he can come to is to judge based on our understanding of what kind of animals they are, and the action/reaction specific cognitive processes of that animal. It is observational science. I don’t think humans have any mind theory’s going on with different kinds of species or phylum.
      Humans like to have an anaphoric understanding of everything including God. What is he like? Ask any person in the World and they will say, murder is wrong, stealing is wrong, etc. That’s of course if the society or culture reinforces these specific anaphoric moral laws that we share as humans. There by demonstrating individually and as a group silent the moral law that is writing within every human’s heart.
      Just to bust someone’s bubble about thinking you can’t breed or quite these moral desires- Hitler showed the World what man is capable of doing. What if the babies born in the Nazis state had grown up the way that society wanted. You might have difficulty today trying to explain to them. I think that it not bad to question these things so long as we have the Law of non contradiction working for us.
      In summing up, the geneticist is still working diligently on coding the human genes. Like psychology or philosophy there will be different schools of thought, but if we continue to use reasonable logic we will find our lives as Christians or as none Christians much more pleasurable.

      • Alfred says:

        Sorry people, when one is in a hurry one forgets to correct his spelling. The correct word and spelling is Anthropomorphism

  2. I think our moral faculties are similar in kind to our logical faculties. Some have refered to these truths as properly basic. We know them even if we dont know how we know them. I know the law of noncontradiction is true even if I cant prove it scientifically. Same with objective moral values. In the absence of any good evidence against them, I am justified in affirming them. Especially in light of the fact that it isnt just me who percieves them, but mankind in general throughout history.

  3. Erik says:

    Personally, I think this challenge is a bit scattered in its approach. My answer is a bit long, and for that I apologize, but I want to give a reasonable amount of consideration to this challenge. With that in mind, I’d like to start with a definition of some of the terms used in the challenge (all definitions from Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)

    Intuition: “quick and ready insight; immediate apprehension or cognition; knowledge or conviction gained by intuition”

    Instinct: “a natural or inherent aptitude, impulse, or capacity; a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason”

    Conscience: “the sense of consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good”

    So, how we can tell the difference between an objective moral value and a “genetic adaptation that encourages moral behavior?” I’m just curious, what evidence is there that moral behavior is genetic at all? I’ve listened to debates on this topic by some of the best minds on both sides of the issue and have yet to hear any good or reasonable evidence that genetic adaptation (or genetics at all) has anything to do with moral behavior or even the existence of morality. Since the idea behind evolution is that changes happen as a result of a need to adapt to a changing environment, how do we answer the question of how genetic adaptation is initiated for changes in moral behavior? If, let’s say, early man notices that murdering his fellow man is detrimental to the social group, how then does a non-reasoning strand of DNA mutate to now program future cells so that future humans find murder to be unacceptable? Isn’t this supposed to be about random chance?

    I’m curious, the question appears to be asking whether or not there is objective truth, then goes on to say that objective truth may possibly be the result of genetic adaptation. So what is the question, really? Do you believe there is a moral truth but can’t decide on the origin, or do you simply question the existence of objective truth at all?

    Regarding the reference to “moral intuition or conscience” in the animal kingdom. You say this could be “easily demonstrated”. What particular examples are you referring to? Above, I defined some of your terms, so let’s apply them here. Now you can certainly point to the fact that animals demonstrate instinct. But do they demonstrate conscience? Intuition? Cognition? Conviction? Blameworthiness? Considering examples from the animal kingdom, it’s true, many animal parents instinctively protect their young. But why? An animal mother will instinctively protect their young, feed their young, keep them sheltered from the weather. Does the mother do these things out of a choice to love her children? Does she consider the cost to her health and her well-being to continue raising and protecting them? Does she worry about how the children will turn out? I would not argue against the evidence for instinct in the animal world, but I see no evidence that any of the conditions for conscience or intuition are present in their actions. Do animals make decisions based on a sense of moral goodness? Are they concerned about the blameworthiness of their own conduct? Do they feel an obligation to do what is right or good? How about guilt? Do animals feel guilty? An animal parent doesn’t protect its young because it “loves” them in the same way a human parent loves their child. An animal father doesn’t abandon its young because it doesn’t care for them any longer and just wants to live an unburdened lifestyle. Rather, these are instinctual behaviors that are not affected by rational thought. Humans however have a clearly distinct ability to show reason and rational thought. Whereas an animal parent provides food and protection for their children for a time, then lets them go, human parents go beyond the basic instincts of protection and provide far more for their children – love, compassion, moral guidance, education, structure. Humans also have the capacity to hate a child, to choose, based on emotion and against instinct, to abandon a child, and to later, suffer guilt for that choice. I guess the point I’m making is that there is a pretty big difference between instinctual reactions in the animal kingdom and moral behavior and rationality (or irrationality) in humans. We need to be careful not to confuse instinct with intuition. With that said, I don’t see that your point regarding the animal kingdom supports your initial hypothesis.

    So, is the question about the existence of objective truth, or how objective truth comes to be? I don’t think your question makes a case for whether or not objective truth exists. If that was the point, then I think a different set of evidence needs to be presented.

    Finally, you state that “All we can really know is that WE PERSONALLY feel like this or that is the right thing to do”. Okay, let’s say that’s true. If what we personally feel is the right (or presumably, the wrong) thing to do, then how do you account for the fact that society as a whole regards some truths almost universally? We have laws based around these very beliefs. Why? If all truths are simply personal feelings, then why have laws at all? You may say that they benefit the collective whole of society, but again, why should that be the case? Based on your statement, if enough people ‘feel’ a certain way, should we then decide that laws need to change based on feelings? What if suddenly a large majority of the population decided that it feels right to kill all atheists? If we follow your line of thinking to its logical conclusion, this could be a reasonable end result. Now, is that going to happen? Of course not. We all know that it’s wrong to just kill people because they don’t agree with us. No one can rationally dispute the existence of this moral knowledge. Do I have to be able to prove its source? I don’t think so. I think human history and society itself gives ample evidence to the fact that moral objectivity, moral absolutes have always been here, we know, somehow that they are true, and we live our lives based upon them. The framers of the Declaration of Independence used the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. They also used terms like ‘necessary’, ‘respect’, ‘requires’, ‘impels’. They didn’t provide justification for these beliefs, and they didn’t give any indication that these were just “feelings”. Rather they, using their rational minds, drew the same conclusion we still draw today: some things are true, not because of personal feeling, but because it simply is. We have an entire society built around these very beliefs. I have to think that is something more than personal feeling, something more than mere opinion. I may be unable to explain the origin of these truths, but I do believe that history shows us that objective truth is real, and we can know it.

  4. Sam Harper says:

    Why would the fact that I intuit something to be true be considered evidence that it really is true?

    Because intuition is a reliable method of knowledge. It’s how we know that our senses are giving us true information about the world. It’s how we know our memories are giving us true information about the past. It’s how we know that past experience can tell us something about what to expect in the future. It’s how we know that “ought” implies “can.” And various other things. If you distrust the deliverances of your rational intuition, then you throw the external world into doubt, you throw the past into doubt, and you make it impossible to know anything from experience. You throw the whole scientific enterprise into doubt. But if it’s rational to believe there’s an external world, there’s a past, and that experience can tell you what the world is like, then you should also believe in morality since morality is known in exactly the same way these other things are known.

    How would we be able to tell the difference between a truly objective moral value and a genetic adaptation that encourages moral behavior?

    Why does their need to be a difference? What if it turns out that the reason certain items of synthetic a-priori knowledge (e.g. our knowledge that our senses are giving us true information about an external world that really exists) is because of our genetics? Would that be a good reason to doubt them? Well, if you’re a physicalist, and you acknowledge that these items of knowledge are natural and innate, then you would have to admit they have something to do with your genetics since it is your genetics that built your brain. If you doubt the deliverances of your cognitive faculties on the basis that your brain produces them, and your genes produce your brain, then you will throw into doubt not only your synthetic a priori items of knowledge (e.g. the external world, the past, the uniformity of nature, etc.), but you will also throw into doubt your analytic a priori items of knowledge (e.g. the laws of logic, math, geometry, etc.). After all, all of these items of knowledge come to you by way of your brain, and your brain is the result of your genes.

    They would both “feel” the same. You would “just know” that torturing babies for fun is wrong in the same way that you would if that was an objective moral truth.

    It is true that it’s possible your brain could deliver you synthetic items of a priori knowledge that do no correspond to reality. It’s possible that we all perceive a moral realm that’s only in our heads. It’s also possible that we are brains in vats being stimulated by electrodes, and the external world is an illusion. We wouldn’t know the difference. It’s possible we were created five minutes ago complete with memories of a past that never actually happened. We wouldn’t know the difference. It’s possible that nature will behave completely different tomorrow than it always has in the past. But “just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to believe” (Greg Koukl, Stand to Reason).

    If our sense of morality is an illusion, then we are deluded and sociopaths are seeing the world accurately. A sociopath can look at a person starving to death on the one hand and another person enjoying a nice steak dinner on the other hand and see no difference. But most of us see a difference between good and tragedy. If our moral intuitions are deceiving us, then sociopaths are seeing the world more accurately than we are. But we all recognize sociopathy to be a mental illness. A sociopath’s mind is not working correctly. A correctly working mind is a mind that perceives a difference between right, wrong, good, and evil.

    Just be honest with yourself. You can no more live as if your sense of right and wrong is an illusion than you can live as if your memories of the past are illusions. You cannot live consistently with that belief because that belief is deeply engrained in you, and like the rest of us, you have to live in reality.

    Here are a few things from my blog on this same subject:

    Are Moral Realists Delusional?

    Morality Debate

    Conversations With God: Morality part 1

  5. This is one challenge I’m interested in seeing the answer, because for once I think I agree with the challenge. I take “objective moral values are self-evidently true” as meaning that “intuition” is something different than “logic.” (If it’s not, then my answer changes!)

    But assuming “intuition” is different than logic, humans are fundamentally terrible at following their intuition. Psychology has shown this time and again. A great illustration is that we all know better than to change our answer on a multiple choice test. Always stick with your first answer. Of course, that’s completely wrong. In the 33 studies done looking at this phenomenon, not one showed that sticking with your first answer was a good choice. In almost all cases, changing your answer improves your score. And in none of the studies did it lower your score.

    Our intuition (or at least how I take intuition) tells us exactly the wrong conclusion. And there are dozens more examples just like this in any psychology text book / journal.

    • Sam Harper says:

      Eric, intuition is not the same thing as logic. Logic is known by intuition.

      I think you are equivocating on the word “intuition.” The word can be used in more than one way. An intuition can mean a hunch that something is true, which is what people mean when they say, “women’s intuition.” Intuition can also mean immediate knowledge upon reflection.

      You seem to be using “intuition” as a synonym for “hunch,” and you’re quite right that we can be wrong about it. The idea that sticking with the same answer on a multiple choice test is a good idea is not part of our foundation of knowledge. It’s just an incorrect hunch people have. So it doesn’t fit into the same category as morality, the uniformity of nature, the reliability of our sensory perception, logic, geometry, the content of our own thoughts, etc.

      If knowledge by intuition is unreliable, then knowledge is impossible because all knowledge fits under one of two categories–either it is inferred from something prior, or it is a priori. So all knowledge ultimately depends on a priori items of knowledge. We know a priori things by way of intuition. If we can’t trust intuition, then we have no a priori knowledge, and if we have no a priori knowledge, that we have no knowledge by inference. And since those are the only two kinds of knowledge, then we have no knowledge whatsoever.

      It is irrational to deny the reliability of knowledge by intuition because it undermines everything else you know, including your supposed knowledge that knowledge by intuition is unreliable. So it’s a self-refuting claim.

  6. I see a lot of interesting responses so far, but I see them going off in many different directions. Allow me to clarify my challenge (The actual challenge I wish to pose is at the bottom of this post).

    Amy has copied and pasted a response I gave to Brett via twitter about the issue of objective morals. As a result, the exact wording of the challenge may not make complete sense to the reader who was not following our discussion (of which the text is a part). So in effort to eliminate any distractions that may arise in the responses, I will try to explain not my entire, unpacked objection to the concept of objective morality, but only the specific objection itself (which is part of a larger objection), and ask you to please respond to just that. If you are arguing with other claims that I made in the original question about things like natural selection’s ability to develop morality in other animals, or something else that is not actually this week’s challenge, perhaps we can discuss it another time on twitter or my dumb website. I will likely ignore it in here, unless it directly addresses my objection.

    In order to frame my challenge clearly, I want to make the context that brought the question to my mind. I understand that the overwhelming majority of people agree on major moral issues. We all (basically) think that unjustified killing is wrong, torturing people is wrong, etc. We nearly all have these very similar intuitions, or feelings, or ethical instincts or whatever you want to call it. I agree with that, and if you are trying to argue over the definition of the word intuition, and then using that definition to argue against my point, then it is very likely that you are not understanding my objection.

    We all have these moral intuitions, feelings or convictions that we feel. Most of the time, that is how we make our moral decisions. We all largely agree on the big issues. But how does that show that this conviction that a given action is morally right or wrong tell us anything about whether it really is right or wrong in actuality? Why is our intuition about morality considered evidence that there is a transcendent moral code? If you already assume that God exists, and the moral code comes from him, then of course it seems reasonable that he would have given us an indicator. Pretty bad indicator, if you ask me, but I won’t get into that! If you are able to, for the sake of argument, start without the assumption that God exists, then I think my challenge will be more clear to you. If you are unable to leave that assumption out of your argument, then you are not thinking about the question correctly.

    Can our moral convictions/intuitions be wrong? I think everyone will agree that yes, sometimes they can be wrong. And I understand that just because our moral compass can be faulty doesn’t mean that moral “north” doesn’t exist. I am fully aware that someone having an incorrect moral idea does not cast doubt on the existence of a transcendent moral code. After all, the law could still exist, but perhaps that person was just bad at discerning what it was. So please don’t tell me that my objection makes this fatal error. This is not what I am claiming.

    So after all of this, what can I distill my challenge down to for purposes of making it accessible to anyone that happens to wander into our discussion, without any of the prior context? I think this is really the heart of it, as worded in my original challenge:

    “Why would the fact that I intuit something to be true be considered evidence that it really is true?”

    • Sam Harper says:

      Eric, maybe I am still misunderstanding your objection because you are asking a question I’ve already answered: Why is our intuition about morality considered evidence that there is a transcendent moral code?

      You also ask how a moral intuition can tell us that a given action is morally right or wrong. You seem to acknowledge that there’s a difference between knowing that there is such a thing as right and wrong and knowing that some particular thing is right or wrong. But you say that if I point out this distinction that I’m misunderstanding your objection. In that case, I’m misunderstanding your objection, because as it stands, that’s how I would answer you.

      Earlier, i compared or moral intuitions to our sensory perceptions of the external world and to our memories of the past. Everyone knows that our senses and our memories can deceive us. But the mere fact that we can be wrong about WHAT we see or remember doesn’t in any way undermine our knowledge THAT there’s an external world and a past. In the same way, the fact that we can be mistaken in the particulars of what we think is right or wrong doesn’t in any way undermine our knowledge that there is a difference between right and wrong.

      There are a bunch of reasons for why people can be wrong about morality that don’t in any way undermine the notion that there is an objective right and wrong and that we can know it by intuition. One, is that they can be wrong about the facts informing their moral position. For example, two people may disagree over whether abortion is morally justified or not, and their disagreement may be due to a difference in the factual question of whether the unborn are full members of the human family or not. So their underlying moral intuitions do not actually differ.

      People reason from their moral intuitions to practical circumstances, and all kinds of things can go awry in that process. So it is perfectly consistent to acknowledge that people differ on morality, and at the same time to believe everybody knows that there is a moral law.

      But you seem to understand this, which means I’m probably still not understanding your objection.

      • Boz says:

        Sam Harper said: “Earlier, i compared or moral intuitions to our sensory perceptions of the external world and to our memories of the past.”

        Maybe the difference between these things is that knowledge of details of the external world, and knowledge of memories the past can be tested to check if they are correct or incorrect.

        While knowledge/intuition that X is morally wrong cannot be tested in any way.


        Another way of saying this is that:

        I remember that X happened in the past, and you remember that Y happened in the past. I sense-perceive that X is the case, and you sense-perceive that Y is the case. We can check and determine whether X or Y are correct or incorrect.

        But if I intuit that A is morally wrong, and you intuit that B is morally wrong, we have no way to check or determine wheter A or B is correct or incorrect.

        There is no way at all, even in-principle, to determine wheter A or B is correct or incorrect.


        What do you think?

      • Sam Harper says:

        Boz, I’m sorry for the delay. I didn’t notice you had responded. That is a very thoughtful reply, and I have a few things to say about it.

        First, I don’t think our ability to test our knowledge of the external world and the past is what differentiates them from our knowledge of morality. At least not in any relevant way. The reason is because we would know the external world and the past even if we could not test them. For example, you might remember what you had for breakfast this morning and, on the basis of your memory, be justified in saying that you know what you had for breakfast this morning. You don’t need to cut open your stomach, or check to see if the cereal box has been raided before you’d be justified in knowing what you ate. Your memory alone can tell you what you ate.

        Second, I don’t think you can test or memories and your perceptions in order to verify that they are giving you true information about the world without engaging in circular reasoning. Your sensory perceptions are what tell you there’s an external world. So you can’t very well appeal to items in the external world to verify your senses. If you appeal to what somebody else perceives, then you’re begging the question because that person is part of your perception. How do you know that person really exists in the external world?

        Third, I made a distinction in the post you’re responding to between knowing that there’s a past and an external world and knowing particular things about the past and the external world. We can know there’s a past and an external world even if we’re mistaken about what is in the past and in the external world. Our memories and our perceptions are sometimes mistaken, but that doesn’t undermine our knowledge that there’s a past and an external world. In the same way, we can know there’s a difference between right and wrong even if we are mistaken in particular instances of right and wrong. It sounds like you’re claiming that when it comes to particular items of knowledge about the past, the external world, and morality, we can test the past and the external world, but we can’t test morality. I don’t think that’s true. If we assume a past and an external world, there are ways we can verify particular items in the past and the external world. But in the same way, if we assume a past and an external world, there are ways we can verify particular items of knowledge about morality. For example, we can point out mistakes in reasoning that lead people to their moral conclusions, or we could point out mistakes in the “facts” that inform the moral conclusions people come to.

    • Mark in Missouri says:

      Here’s a shot at it: Eric is correct – it’s a mistake to argue that the REASON you think a proposition is true is EVIDENCE for it’s truth.

      Intuition may be a very poor perception tool for determining right or wrong. In fact, from a Biblical perspective, Christians could very well argue that Intuition IS a very poor perception tool for us humans because of our fallen state.

      When you argue for Objective Truth (redundant btw but what else do we call it?), you are arguing that the truth quality applies to the object itself and not to the subject who holds the object.

      When the classic “it’s wrong to kill babies for fun” is cited as an example of Objective Truth, defenders of Objective Morality are not saying “it’s wrong because everything thinks/intuits/agrees it’s wrong”. Rather, defenders would say something like “This is an example of something that is Objectively wrong, i.e. the wrongness lies in the thing itself and not in the opinion of the beholder.” We don’t need evidence of this — it is what Plantiga calls a “properly basic belief.”

  7. Erik says:

    I’m also not certain that your further attempt to clarify the position has helped my understanding of the question you pose. And while I make no claim to have studied these philisophical points as much as you and Sam and others have, I am working to gain a better understanding myself.

    That said, let me take another shot at just the sentence you are highlighting. In trying to understand your point, it appears to me that you are trying to understand how YOU (personally) know that what you intuit is evidence for the objective truth of that intuition. As I thought about this a bit, it occurred to me that perhaps we need to consider something beyond just you, some additional context as it were. As an individual, I may have a tough time trying to interpret an intuition I have about a particular thing. Let’s take murder, just for sake of argument. If I’m the only person in the world, then having a sense that murdering is wrong probably wouldn’t make sense, nor would it be able to be clearly understood in terms of right or wrong. But add in the society around me. Collectively, we see evidence that most, if not all people have the same intuition – murder is wrong. Given the context now of a group of people and the detrimental affect that murder would have on this society, it becomes clear that murder is wrong. What we have then, is evidence by consensus. Since we all seem to intuit the same thing, I’d say it makes for a much stronger case that there must be something behind this intution we all seem to experience. Again pointing to the framers of the Declaration of Independence, they used the term “we”, not I. It was a collective agreement by the Founding Fathers that these truths were self-evident. Not to a particular individual, but rather to a group of individuals. They could each lend an individual attestation that their belief was true.

    So if my argument holds, then it is by collective agreement that we can arrive at evidence of objective truth. The more people intuit a particular thing to be true, or self-evident, the more likely this truth is objective in nature rather than relative. I don’t get that you are against the idea of objective truth, just how it’s confirmed. If your position is that objective truth must be able to be determined by a single individual, rather than by a group of individuals that share the same intuition as I’ve posed, then, for an individual I don’t think a good case can be made for evidence of objective truth via intuition.

    Is it reasonable to assume an individual can know truth based on intuition? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But we are not an individual, we are a we. The context of our lives is that we can ‘test the spirits’ so to speak. We can compare intuition between other sentient beings to see if what we sense to be true lines up with our intuition and those of others or not.

    This is a tough challenge. I do appreciate you coming back here to try and better clarify your position.

  8. Tom Loghry says:

    There are two questions I would ask:

    1. Why is moral intuition an unreliable source for moral truth?
    2. What would be a reliable source for moral truth?

    The reason for asking these two questions is because the first problem with his analysis/questions are that they are begging the question. The holes that he sees in moral intuition are based on his prior conclusion that moral intuition arose from evolutionary development in which such an intuition is purely subjective. The second problem that I suspect is that the only evidence he would accept would be empirical evidence. The difficulty with this is that while moral intuition is manifested globally and historically in the physical world, moral right and wrong is a metaphysical object for which empirical examination is incapable of comprehending.

  9. Sam, thanks for the response, but I’m not sure I follow. (Although know that I believe there is objective truth, and I am a Christian, so my argument doesn’t flow through either of those routes.)

    Obviously the place to start is with the first Colombo Tactic, because I’m still not sure how i see “intuition” as being a source of unfallible knowledge. And maybe that’s the issue. Could intuition be a source of knowledge? Sure. But going back to what I saw as the original objection (objective moral values are self-evidently true), I don’t see how it can get us, at all times, back to the Truth.

    Again going back to psychology, science has shown us that perceptions and even memories can be altered or manipulated. If that’s true, isn’t “intuition” unreliable?

    I’m not trying to pick a fight, just genuinely interested.

    It seems to me that without the Bible and God as an Ultimate Truth, we wouldn’t be able to agree on morality using only our “intuition”. The Israelites in the Old Testament sure couldn’t!

    But perhaps this whole conversation just comes down to what we mean by the word “intuition” and it’s a difference in perspectives and terms between philosophy and psychology. 🙂

    • Sam Harper says:

      Eric, I don’t think intuition is infallible in the case of synthetic a priori items of knowledge, like our knowledge of the external world, the past, morality, causation, the uniformity of nature, etc. I think we should trust our intuitions in these cases unless we have really good reason to think otherwise. It would take quite a bit to convince me that the external world isn’t real, but strictly speaking, it is possible.

      You’re right that perceptions and memories can be unreliable in the particulars, but that is no reason to doubt that there is an external world or that there is a past. In the same way, we can make mistakes in our moral thinking, but that is no reason to doubt that there’s such a thing as right and wrong. And besides, our perceptions, memories, and sense of morality are not that unreliable most of the time.

      With or without the Bible, people agree on most things but inevitably disagree on others. People throughout the world agree on some basic morals. Nobody thinks it’s moral to stab your friends in the back, for example. But even with the Bible, Christians disagree with each other one issues like what justifies divorce, whether it’s okay to go dancing, etc.

      Our morals are not just based on our intuition. Rather, our intuitions are informed by facts. I used the example of abortion earlier. Pretty much everybody agrees you shouldn’t take the life of innocent people unnecessarily. But people differ on whether or not the unborn are examples of innocent people. So the underlying moral intuition between pro-lifers and pro-choicers isn’t really different. They just disagree on the facts informing their moral intuitions.

      In most cases, if you disagree with somebody on some moral issues, you can keep asking them, “Well, why do you think that’s wrong/right?” If you keep asking to justify their opinion, it’s inevitable that they’ll get back to some moral principle that you agree with. It’s just that their process of reasoning is different than yours. Maybe one of you made a mistake in reasoning from some basic moral principles to concrete situations.

      So the fact that people disagree on morality doesn’t necessarily mean that moral intuitions are unreliable.

  10. Wow, lots of good discussion on this one. To be honest I think the strongest evidence that morals are objective is that no one, even those who deny the existence of objective morality, can avoid making objective moral judgments.

    I believe it was C.S. Lewis who first pointed out that the same person who denies the existence of real morals is the same person who will complain if you cut in line or break a promise. People can deny the existence of objective morality all they want, but anytime someone says, “You shouldn’t have done that,” it shows that the other person expects you to share their moral convictions.

    Trying to deny the existence of objective morality is inevitably absurd. Someone may be able to deny it in an academic setting, but the way they react when they are mistreated will always reveal that they really do believe in objective morality.

  11. If you want to understand my original objection better, read it here:

    The way it’s worded in the challenge is a little out of order from the original, and this explains more.

    • Erik says:

      Doubting Eric,

      I read your entire comment on the link you posted above. I’m not sure exactly what kind of response is going to convince you one way or the other on this matter. As it is, our world, our society works as if there are objective truths. Without them, chaos would ensue. Think that’s taking it too far? Without objective right and wrong, we would have no basis for moral codes or laws, which help to keep society functioning properly. You want evidence for that? Myself and others above have pointed to the fact that human history is one long example of a belief, an understanding that certain things are right and wrong. For a Christian, we have the view of a transcendent authority that reveals His point of view through Scripture. Interestingly enough, we find that our intuition about certain things line up with the truth revealed by the transcendent teacher. While appealing to a religious view is unlikely to be a sufficient response, I want to include it because it is a valid consideration on this issue.

      In your question #1 how can we tell the difference between two systems that feel the same from out point of view. Your question is based on an assumption that morality is or can be genetically based or a result of social adaptation. What evidence supports that these feelings come from these sources in the first place? I’ve yet to see any evidence offered, beyond philosophical supposition that this may be possible. Can we know for sure? Maybe not at this time. So, I don’t think it’s truly possible to answer question #1 without a doubt, assuming we keep to your terms.

      Regarding question #2, what reliable way can we know that objective moral values actually exist? I think the folks commenting here have done a pretty good job making the case from a variety of sources that as a race, we hold that some things are objectively true. You make the case that yes, maybe a majority of people believe murder is wrong, but how does a majority consensus make that objectively true? I would point one step deeper in the process to the sense of justice. When it comes to murder or any other type of moral crime, individuals and society demand justice when those crimes are committed. In fact, when justice isn’t appeased, it can lead to instability in a social group, at least until justice is fulfilled. In WWII, millions of people around the world fought to defeat the ideals of a man who was pursuing what he thought to be true. Yet his view did not line up with the rest of the world. Does that mean that his point of view was just as right as the rest of the world? He was in opposition to the majority, he was doing what he believed to be right. So what right, if there is no objective truth, did the rest of the world have to condemn him and his actions? Why was the sense of justice, the outcry to do ‘something’ so great that entire countries dedicated money, time, and the lives of it’s people to defeat this man. Even people who hold a relativistic point of view of the world can be found complaining about injustice and evil. Without objective standards, there can be no definition of these terms.

      Regarding question #3 Why would morality being subjective be morally untenable? Because no one who claims to truly hold to a subjective (relative) point of view can ever hold true to that position. I know people who claim to hold that truth is something that should be defined by each individual. Yet those very people give themselves away as not true to their position all the time. Any time they complain about unfairness, injustice, etc., they show that they do hold to an objective view of morality. You might say that yes, they are simply saying it’s not right based on their point of view, but they extend their opinions beyond themselves saying that unfairness and injustice, evil, apply in the circumstances of others, even people they don’t know. If they don’t know that someone else is bothered the same way they are, how can they truly know another person is suffering injustice? I really think the evidence is clear that human history has well established that there is a right and wrong, that we do know it, even if we can’t understand the actual mechanism of why or how we know it.

      I’m tempted to turn the question back to you and see how you may respond to it. You’ve asked some good questions, but I believe we’ve made the point that objective truth has a lot of evidence on it’s side, so let me ask you this: What evidence do you have that objective moral truth is not real? How do you know that morality is truly subjective and not something that has a more universal nature that transcends our individual feelings?

      Whether morality comes from God, a universal consciousness or as a result of evolutionary adaptation, I don’t think you can make a reasonable case that objective moral truth doesn’t exist. To deny it is to deny the very core beliefs that keep society functional in the first place.

      Again, I’m glad you sent your question to STR and it was used here for this challenge, it’s really made me think about this.

      Believing Erik 😉

      BTW – STR – where is Brett’s response to this?

      • Erik says:

        I forgot to add to my comment above one point. If we ever reached a point where we could say that truth is subjective, then we are refuting that very statement by virtue of making an objective claim about subjective truth. I think this is what Brett was getting at by saying the relativistic position is untenable. You simply can’t say objectively that truth is subjective without contradicting yourself.

      • Amy, posted a big long response, and it ate it again. I tried to post it again, and it said “duplicate comment found. Looks like you already said that!”

        I am obviously upsetting the spam filter.

      • Amy Hall says:

        Yeah, and I can’t figure out why! Sorry about that. I fished it out of spam for you.

  12. By they way, I tried typing that entire response I linked to in this comment box and it just disappeared when I clicked “post.” I don’t know if it got caught in the spam filter because it was long, but you might want to look into that. It’s definitely a wordpress thing because this has only happened to me on wordpress blogs.

    • Erik says:

      I’ve had the same problem, particularly on WordPress. Now when I write a comment, I do it on a Word document first, then copy and paste into the comment window, that way, if WordPress dumps my comment, I can re-post it again. It almost always works the second time.

    • Amy Hall says:

      Eric, you were right–you had some comments in spam, and I can’t figure out why. Strange. I restored them, including the post of your original question to Brett. I think you might have missed that I had linked to it in the challenge so people could read the full thing, but it’s easier to have the whole thing right here, anyway, so thanks.

  13. Believing Erik:

    Thank you for your responses thus far. It is evident that you have given this some thought, and I appreciate that. It’s nice to see that when a lot of people seem to be satisfied with the “God said it, I believe it” answer.

    I would like to respond and hopefully come closer to an answer with you. Please don’t take my criticisms personally, as they are simply me trying to understand what you are saying.

    As evidence for the objectivity of moral values, you put forward the following:

    “Myself and others above have pointed to the fact that human history is one long example of a belief, an understanding that certain things are right and wrong….Interestingly enough, we find that our intuition about certain things line up with the truth revealed by the transcendent teacher.”

    I’m sure you realize the weakness of using tradition as evidence for morality, so I won’t take it too much farther than you wished to. Remember though, that my objection is concerning how people can really know about the existence of an objective moral law (if it exists) in the first place, so pointing to people always knowing it existed doesn’t get to the heart of what I am asking.

    The second half of that quote you point out that our intuition about certain things line up with what scripture says. First of all, certain things is not impressive. If the Bible lined up with all moral intuitions we had, perhaps that would be interesting. But of course no one person has all the same moral intuitions. But even if that were the case, remember that people wrote the Bible. Those people had moral intuitions, in many respects very similar to ours. Seeing moral commands or lessons in the Bible that seem to line up with what we feel (and the authors felt) should not surprise us.

    Regarding evolutionary and social roots for morality, I was not putting forward any particular view on how that came to be, just a possibility that makes sense to me, so far. I just want to point out that if there was an evolutionary and social root to our moral consciences, that would very likely feel deeply ingrained in us. Many moral judgments would seem self-evidently true, in the exact same way that they do now. I don’t really think that there IS a way to tell them apart, so that objection is somewhat rhetorical and a primer for objection #2.

    You move on to my second question. Again, I am not sure there is actually an answer to this question, but I am open to a good one. What reliable method can we use to see if the moral values we (mostly) all perceive and intuit are actually objective and outside of our own subjective selves?

    I am not really sure what your answer to this is. You point to the sense of justice that we all have, asking,

    “Why was the sense of justice, the outcry to do ‘something’ so great that entire countries dedicated money, time, and the lives of it’s people to defeat this man. Even people who hold a relativistic point of view of the world can be found complaining about injustice and evil. Without objective standards, there can be no definition of these terms.”

    Is our sense of justice to be submitted as a method of discerning the objectivity of moral values? Our sense of justice is part of the morality we are seeking to illuminate. To say that we all have a sense of justice, which shows that there is something deep within us that proves morality is truly objective is to misunderstand the question. Our desire for justice is another moral value that we hold, it doesn’t help to show that there is actually a transcendent moral law from which justice and our other values originate. All it says is that humans (mostly) desire justice. That could also be explained by some other means than objectivity just like any other moral conviction.

    I really doubt you would use this as evidence in the way I am understanding it, so I have to assume I am misunderstanding your point. In fact, in your answer to question 2, you show how when justice isn’t appeased, it can lead to instability in a social group. This actually may be a glimpse into how justice has become such a deep-seated value in humans. It doesn’t prove that it has a naturalistic origin, but it shows how something like that might have happened. Of course, it could be actually objective and the fact that it promotes social stability is WHY it is part of the law. Either way, it’s interesting, but unconvincing.

    Question 3 has nothing to do with moral untenability, but rational untenability. Brett claimed earlier in our conversation that subjective morality is rationally untenable, and I was simply questioning that claim. The fact that people live as if morality is objective does nothing to show that it actually IS objective. Even if society would crumble to the ground and this world turned into a living hell, it still doesn’t mean it’s objective. To treat morality as objective may be beneficial, and to deny it may be detrimental, but that says nothing about what the truth actually is. I don’t want to assume too much here, but I feel like you are not going deep enough into the question if this is considered an answer.

    We agree that society has moral codes that we all follow in order to live happier lives. It works, for the most part. But the fact that it works doesn’t mean it’s actually in line with the truth. These moral codes we hold in our minds could be fictitious constructs that serve a purpose, and should be upheld if we want to be happy. The fact that it holds society together doesn’t mean it’s true.

    I would also like to say that the entire line of reasoning that points to how people can’t and don’t live like morality is subjective, how we all complain when someone wrongs us or how a subjectivist would have to affirm absurd moral conclusions is just silly to me in regards to the questions I have brought up. I don’t care if I can’t REALLY claim that someone wronged me, in an ultimate sense, or that I sometimes act as if morality is objective. This is not proof of anything other than how deeply foundational our moral sense is rooted in our minds. I realize that we could be completely mistaken about anything, so we should question everything. Arriving at a conclusion that runs against my moral attitudes doesn’t mean the conclusion is wrong. It could be my moral attitude that is mistaken. That is a very careful line to walk, and it doesn’t in any way give me license to do whatever I want, only to think about what is really true, underneath the intuitional surface.

    Regarding you putting the question back to me, so I may provide evidence that objective moral truth is not real. I am absolutely unable to prove that. I do have some reasons that I think explain why morality feels the way it does and where it came from (generally), but that is not the challenge for here. I don’t want to derail the main discussion into many other questions, but I would also not shy away from answering you. So if you would like to talk more about some ideas for possible alternative explanations of morality, I think we should do it in the comments of my website (, perhaps on this post would be an appropriate place:

    To clarify: I am not claiming that objective moral values and duties do not exist. That is not really my challenge. Sure, that is what I actually think, but that is not really what I am arguing. I am saying that believers could be mistaken about it, and their way of knowing there is an objective law is lacking. Really, this stems from a slight frustration I get when I see apologists just assuming that morals are objective when making an argument for God’s existence. This assumption is key to their argument, and yet it is (usually) not backed up with anything other than subjective means.

    On a related previous STR challenge (, I say a lot of the same things, since that particular challenge wasn’t as specific to this one. I will quote what Bob Seidensticker said ( in the comments there about this issue:

    “I’m amazed that a claim as monumental as objective morality is tossed out as casually as it always seems to be. I’ve listened to lots of apologists argue for it, but I’ve never heard anything more substantial than “We all know that certain things are just wrong” (where “just wrong” is supposed to mean “objectively wrong”). Universal moral truths? Or universally held moral instincts? They look very similar, but the latter is all natural. I’m going to need a lot of evidence that the supernatural explanation is the correct one, and I’ve seen nothing.”

    So consider this challenge a “pushing back” on the assumption that is being made.

    • Erik says:


      No, I don’t take your comments personaly. Rather I appreciate you taking the time to respond in detail so I can have an opportunity to review my arguments, whether they made sense to someone else and whether or not I really got the point across that I was hoping to achieve. You’ve got some good points and I’d like to work on this a bit more, so I think I’ll meet you over at your place if you get my meaning, and take it from there. As for this challenge, I think I’m nearing the end of my current level of knowledge on this issue, but I’m looking forward to continuing to build on that foundation. Thank you.

    • Erik says:

      Eric, I would like to add one additional thought. To my previous response, you categorized my appeal to history as a weak. Actually you used the term “tradition”, which I did not use myself. I was instead referring specifically to human history, of which tradition is only a part. My intent was to point to a specific historical illustration. Such was my example of the Declaration of Independence, which I will, again put forth as evidence since it has yet to receive what I would consider a reasonable refutation. Again I point out what the founding fathers declared: the belief that all men are created equal, that this is truth and that it is self-evident. So let’s put this belief to the test using some of the methods for testing truth from philosophy.

      First let’s test coherence. Is the statement “all men are created equal” internally incoherent? Is it self-refuting? Greg Koukl has used an illustration of the fact that there are no “square circles”. A square circle would be self-refuting, it would not make sense logically. The belief that all men are created equal logically makes sense in that it does not contradict iteslf. Some may not agree with it, but it is logically coherent.

      Next, let’s look at correspondence. Does it fit the world as it really is? I believe it can be demonstrated that in following with the tenets of this belief, that holding that there is inherent equality or value for all people, makes sense in the world as we see it. We can look at history at the evidence of what happens when a society devalues certain people – the damage it causes to basic human rights, the abuse of power. We can also see what happens when a society embraces the equality of people – things like slavery and women’s equality are championed. Simply put, the idea that all men are created equal fits the world as it really is.

      How about consensus. This test of truth is whether or not an idea is attested to by a certain social group rather than an individual. You certainly can’t argue the fact that a group of some of the greatest social political minds of their time had consensus on this view. You can also point to the fact that while many shared a common world view, not all shared the same views, yet arrived at the same conclusion. While you may state that consensus alone is not enough confirmation for something to be true, it is a valid test and in light of the other tests, fits with their conclusions.

      We can consider the pragmatic test. When put into use, do the results of the idea provide evidence of the truth of that idea? Similar to correspondence, we can look at the world for evidence of what happens when this idea is put to the test. Our own history has shown that holding to this ideal leads us to better treatment of those groups of people that have been historically devalued.

      Finally I’ll put it to the plurality test. To test for this, we simply look to see if the idea is able to be tested by more than one test for truth. In this case, I believe the argument can be made that the idea being discussed here satisfies each of the previous tests I’ve mentioned.

      So, is it weak to appeal to history or a historical example? I certainly don’t see how that can be considering the results of the simple tests above. The founders of this country certainly believed that there is at least one self-evident truth. And if there is even one self-evident truth, as the evidence above points to, then the next question that needs to be answered is this: What is the source of self-evident truth? In the end, I think you’d have to find a way to defeat far greater minds than mine to give a compelling argument against the position that it is possible to not only intuit something, but to actually know it is true.

      BTW, I’ve left a comment for you on your site as you suggested.

  14. peter chen says:

    I think as human beings made by the Lord in His image, we are simply incapable of understanding the mind of our creator by intuition, unless we resort to the book of which the Lord is the author: the bible, in which we see God’s character and his righteousness and holiness, which I believe are where the objective moral values come from.

  15. jshark says:

    I think the short answer to the challenge is that of course intuition can’t prove objective moral values. Intuition could only be (plausibly) used in this case if everyone’s intuition was in agreement all the time. On a relatively tiny and narrowly defined set of behaviors all human intuition is in agreement (the torturing babies argument). But, on a massive range of moral choices in response to all kinds of behavior, individuals, cultures and societies are in stark conflict. It could very well be, or is least plausible, that those things we all tend to agree are right or wrong are so close to the basic human condition that through social evolution all groups that exist today had to have these morals or they would have imploded and thus are not around today to participate in the debate. Or that the agreement comes from a shared biology, or a combination of these factors. If we do say that certain morality is in fact objective, we still leave the door open for other moralities that are non-objective. And if this point is conceded, we are acknowledging that there is a mechanism for creating non-objective morality. Why can’t we then say that this mechanism is responsible for all morality? Put another way, if some morality is relative, then why can’t we say all morality is relative, and for that morality that appears to be universal we are just observing relative moralities that overlap. Why does it have be that relative morals are always in conflict with each other and not in agreement? If my socio-cultural experience tells me that random murder is ‘bad’ and so does yours, that doesn’t necessarily mean random murder is ‘objectively’ bad, but rather it could be that we have come to the same relative conclusion based on shared biological and social similarities (or more accurately we have been socialized into cultures whose moral codes are in agreement on this particular behavior).
    My thought is that its so much easier to explain the places where moral codes and or intuition overlap without objective morality, then trying to explain morality that conflicts with objective morals.