The NPR blog has a shortish post on “What If Heaven Is Not For Real,” written by self-declared agnostic Adam Frank. You can probably guess what he’s going to say, and I’m not going to say much for or against it. But I do want to take note of the comments, and this one in particular.
JW: That is a very profound verse. Do you believe that there is objective morality?
I’ve heard that argument so many times, and read it in so many books of apologetics (including C. S. Lewis et al), and of course it’s a huge red herring. But just for fun, let’s see how many ways we can come up with to try and make it clear, even to believers, that this is a bad argument. My entry: “Objective Deliciousness.”
The Objective Deliciousness Argument is just like the Argument From Morality. The argument from morality states that we all know, instinctively, that there’s a difference between right and wrong, and we all have a pretty good idea of which things are good and which things are bad, even though we ourselves don’t always live up to the things we call good and/or abstain from what we call bad. The conclusion we’re supposed to reach is that morality must be some kind of objective standard based on some kind of higher, nobler, and more divine authority than our own subjective preferences.
Is that a valid argument? Well, let’s consider objective deliciousness. As with morality, we all have an innate and inherent sense of which foods are good (delicious) and which are bad (yucky). Is this because there is some kind of higher law of objective deliciousness?
Well, no, you say, it’s subjective. But is it? This is the point where the argument from morality asks us if we can just decide that robbery and murder are ok. If we can’t, if stealing and killing are still wrong no matter what we think, then morality, supposedly, is objective rather than subjective.
So let’s apply the same standards to how food tastes. Can we, as individuals, simply decide which foods are going to taste good to us and which are going to taste bad? If so, all we need to do is decide that junk food tastes bad and healthy foods are delicious. But we can’t. We all obey “God’s divine Law of Deliciousness” when it comes to perceiving which foods are tasty and which are not. Right?
Don’t we all share the same general opinions about what’s yummy and what isn’t? How many people like the taste of motor oil, or rotting onions? How many of us dislike the taste of sugar? There’s some range of variation, just like there is with morality, but the same broad, fundamental principles apply to us all. See? Deliciousness is objective, which means there must be a higher power establishing the deliciousness of each food according to His divine providence. And anyone who does not like the same flavors we do must be sinning against the God of Deliciousness.
Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Deliciousness, like morality, has its basis in the physical attributes of material reality. There is some degree of variation in our perceptions, including our perception of flavors, but we all share common mechanisms of physiology and a common human psychology. We are similar organisms, and we have similar experiences, including the experience of getting sick when we eat spoiled food. Much of our perception of “delicious” vs. “yuck” comes from the anticipated consequences of eating whatever it is.
The same is true of morality. What makes something “good” or “bad” are the material consequences that result from it. Is it bad to paint a rock blue on one side and yellow on the other? Probably not: it’s hard to imagine a set of circumstances where doing so would cause any harm or suffering to anyone. If you took that rock and hit someone with it, though, that would be bad: the consequences would be painful and harmful both to the victim you assaulted, and to you, when society responded to your attack.
All morality, including Christian morality, comes down to material consequences. If you think murdering a bunch of people will result in burning forever in Hell, you’ll see that as “bad” because you don’t like the consequence. Whether or not that particular consequence is real, it has a moral influence on you precisely and only because of how you feel about it as an expected consequence of your actions. That’s why Christian theology teaches that sinners will be resurrected in physical bodies before being thrown into Hell: you have to have a physical body, or something analogous to a physical body, in order to produce the perception of a material consequence. And morality is simply how we feel about the consequences.
That’s why we have similar moral intuitions, just like we all have similar tastes in food, without there being any objective morality, or any objective deliciousness. Material reality puts constraints on what the possible outcomes can be for any type of action, just like it puts constraints on how we physically perceive and react to the taste of different foods. We don’t need to leap to any superstitious conclusions about any supernatural forces trying to dictate some kind of confused, ill-defined, and fickle standards over us. It’s just ordinary folks in physical, material bodies perceiving things and making choices within the constraints that the material world happens to provide.