Friday, January 29, 2010

Oppy on Moral Arguments (Part 8): The Argument from Conscience

This post is part of my series on Graham Oppy's discussion of moral arguments. For an index, see here.

The Argument Stated
The eighth argument dealt with by Graham Oppy is the argument from conscience. Something like this seems to lie behind many religious believers acceptance of a moral law. The argument has the following form:
  • (P1) Conscience, as a sanction of right conduct, induces feelings and experiences of fear, shame and responsibility.
  • (P2) Such feelings require a person who is their 'focus', that is, a person to whom one is responsible, before whom one is ashamed and so on.
  • (P3) No human being can systematically be the focus for these feelings.
  • (C1) Therefore, conscience logically requires a relationship to an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god.
  • (C2) Therefore, there is an orthodoxly conceived monotheistic god.
Reading that cannot help but evoke H.L. Mencken's immortal words: "Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody might be looking."

Let's see whether we can beat Mencken's mordant wit.

Beginning with P1, we have to ask about the ontological status of conscience. It seems that it is simply a label for a cluster of emotions or feelings we have about our own conduct. We need to be clear that this is the meaning being employed because some might argue that conscience is mystical or sui generis. Understood as a label for a cluster of emotions, "conscience" clearly exists.

Moving to P2, we must ask whether it is true that conscience requires a personal focus. Could there not be a general, untethered sense of guilt just as there can be a directionless feeling of anger or a vague sense of unease?

Maybe this is not a good objection, but it is worth considering. More substantive is the question about the need for a single person to play the role of the focus. Why not many different people, at different times? There seems to be no good answer to that question.

P3 is perhaps the most dubious of all (at least from my perspective). Oppy does not pursue the matter in great detail (he speaks only of the plausibility of a naturalistic explanation for conscience), but I am pretty sure that there is one person, who is not God, who can be the focus: yourself. If we adopt a transtemporal theory of self, i.e. a view based on the idea that the self exists through time, there is no difficulty with believing that you can have certain expectations of your own conduct at T1 which you fail to live up to at T2 and which thereby induce feelings of guilt or shame at T3. (See Ainslie's The Breakdown of the Will for some of the theoretical basis for this).


  1. Does it matter what theory of time one adopts when it comes to Oppy's objection to P3?

  2. Bogdan,

    Two points.

    First, the specific objection to P3 is mine, not Oppy's. He only speaks generally about the lack of any intuition or reason to accept it and the possibility of a natural explanation. The natural explanation offered is something I've been cooking up myself. That is why I used "I" in the text. I am going to edit it to make this clearer.

    Second, your question is not one I have thought about a great deal but I will offer some thoughts on it. As I understand it, an A-theorist thinks there is some crucial metaphysical distinction between past, present and future. In particular, they think the future is less real than the past or present. B-theorists think there is no such metaphysical difference. The past, present and future are more like different spatial locations on a road (indeed, time is just another dimension to the B-theorist).

    Despite their different metaphysical claims, both A-theorists and B-theorists have similar views on our subjective or existential relationship to time. They both think we relate differently to the past and to the future when making decisions. In particular, they say the past presses-upon the present and that the future is epistemically closed. B-theorists would only argue that there is nothing special about time that make the past and future different. Rather, our unique relationship to time is merely due to the fact that we are embedded in it.

    Anyway, the argument I make is all about our subjective or existential relationship with time. So I do not think it makes a difference whether one is an A-theorist or a B-theorist. Both would agree that the past ramifies or presses upon the present. And so both should agree that previous moral stances would affect how we react to present actions.