Saturday 12 February 2011

Are human values moral values?

Revisiting the Unbelievable? online discussion group this weekend after a period of absence, I noted that considerable to and fro was in full swing regarding the show in which Paul Thompson ("Sinbad") debated Mark Roques on the question of "human value". This is a pretty diffuse term to begin with, and the discussion on the show didn't define it with any precision. The debate illustrated a typical clash of mindsets that could not be resolved during the limited time for the show, and although the online forum discussion allows for greater depth, it isn't any more likely to reach a resolution.

Rather than dwell on that particular discussion in isolation, I'll simply point to its similarities with the 11 September 2010 edition of Unbelievable? — a discussion between Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, and Peter D. Williams of Catholic Voices. The show wasn't explicitly about human values, but it showed the same clash of mindsets as the more recent broadcast.

Andrew Copson is one of humanism's most articulate advocates, and the fact that he made no impression at all on Peter Williams during their discussion illustrates the futility of attacking the theist position on the metaphysics of morality. Unfortunately the show's format prevented this aspect of their disagreement being further explored. Not that such exploration would have made much difference, I suspect.

The theist position is that morality must by definition have a transcendent basis. The humanist position is that such a basis is neither proven nor necessary. While it may be too much to hope that theists such as Peter Williams will be swayed by the arguments Andrew put forward, there may have been theists (and others) listening to the show who don't necessarily buy into a fundamentally transcendent nature of morality, and who will see that Andrew's humanist viewpoint is a perfectly valid stance, and one that is based on reality rather than some disputed, unproven supernatural proposition.

Andrew's point at the end of the exchange was well made: as a result of the discussion he said he was more convinced of his own position than he had been before.

In brief, as I see it, the problem with the "moral argument for the existence of God" as espoused by some theists, is mainly one of definition. A humanist may go into some detail as to how he or she derives moral values without a belief that those values are god-given (as I have done myself), but theists are unable to accept such a line of argument because they believe that any values derived from something other than God aren't "moral" values at all. It's as if they define morality as "a system of values dictated by God". Never mind that such a definition impales itself on the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma — which, despite theistic protestations to the contrary, has never been successfully resolved.