Barry Arrington’s Challenge

After a long gap for doing an MSc I have a little time to do some more posting.

I got myself banned from Uncommon Descent sometime ago which really helped free up time for the course, but I do look in from time to time to see if anyone has written anything interesting or useful.  Unfortunately the more intelligent contributors such vj torley and gpuccio seem to have more or less given up.  However, I couldn’t resist this one from Barry Arrington.  There is a bit of preamble, but his essential challenge is:

Let’s try again.  I say two things:  (1) Torturing young children for fun is self-evidently morally evil; and (2) this is true at all times and in all places and in all cultures and under all circumstances even if everyone in a particular place and time were to disagree with me.

I challenge materialists everywhere.  Come onto this website and start your answer with the following: 

Response to proposition one:  True or False

Response to proposition two:  True or False

Then defend your position.

I will set aside the irony of inviting materialists everywhere to come to the web site when the vast majority of interested materialists have been banned. He is clearly looking for straightforward one word answers so my answers are:

Proposition one: True

Proposition two: True

But having got that out of the way let me explain why I answer this way.

By phrasing the question in terms of true or false Barry has implied that statements about what is evil are descriptions of states of affairs. I don’t think moral language works that way.  When I assert child torture is evil I am not asserting any extra information over and above that fact that children are being tortured. The other thing I am doing is expressing (but not describing) my abhorrence of the act and my hope and belief that others will agree with me.

Because I have equal abhorrence for the act whenever and wherever it is committed, proposition one is true.

Proposition two is harder. I could (just about) imagine a society where child torture was not abhorred.  The people in that society would sincerely assert that child torture is not evil and there would be no way of proving them wrong. So in that sense proposition 2 is false. However, I would continue to abhor the act (and also abhor that society) independent of their beliefs soI would continue to assert proposition 2 is true.

Neither of these answers makes morality objective.  As I have tried to explain several times an issue can be subjective and still be of great importance and subject to evidence and rational debate.


21 Responses to “Barry Arrington’s Challenge”

  1. 1 Mark Frank August 27, 2012 at 6:27 am

    Many thanks to vj torley for leaving a comment on UD directing attention to this post. Barry just described it as mental contortions.

    I am not alone in my contortions. The point that language does not necessarily desribe something is of course widely established among philisophers stemming from the later Wittgenstein through J.L. Austin, John Searle etc. For its particular application to morality I recommend The Language of Morals by R.M. Hare. Of course they have probably explained the point much better than I did.

  2. 2 Brent August 27, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    The point that language does not necessarily desribe something is of course widely established among philisophers . . .

    Oh! Were you expecting me to act as if you were saying something meaningful?

    Mental contortion is exactly precise. Your position should, obviously, be “false/false”, but you twisted and turned until you thought you could justify “true/true”. How can you expect to be taken seriously? How do you know, for that matter, that Barry’s language actually described the state of his mental affairs concerning you?

    * Note: This post may or may not describe my actual thinking on this matter.

    • 3 Mark Frank August 27, 2012 at 2:14 pm

      Brent – thanks for responding.

      I suspect that you think that my response is just an intellectual trick to obscure what you see as obviously true – but I promise you it isn’t. My position seems as clearly and obviously correct to me as yours, no doubt seems clearly and obviously correct to you.

      A couple of points:

      Language does not have to describe something to be meaningful. If you give an order or exclaim or promise or encourage or recite a poem you are not describing anything but you are using language meaningfully. This was the insight of many philosophers in the last century – some of whom I mentioned.

      You claim that my position is obviously false/false but you give no supporting argument for this while I have explained why my position is true/true. I can see no way forward until you explain why you believe my position should be false/false.

      Your last couple of sentences seem to be about how do we know things rather than theories of meaning. That’s an interesting philosophical question but I cannot see how it is relevant to current debate.

  3. 4 Brent August 27, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    So, you’re saying I misunderstood your reason for pointing out that language doesn’t have to describe something (an actual state of affairs) to be meaningful? You didn’t bring this up to just dismiss the idea of there being any objective meaning in “moral”? It’s not that you only say that morality isn’t itself objective, but that the meaning of morality isn’t even objective (as well as the meaning of evil).

    But the contortion is this: You act as if you answered Barry, when in fact you redefined the whole meaning/the question itself, and answered that instead. Just answer “false/false” and explain why. It’s all the same in the end, but it seems disingenuous to act as if you answered Barry’s question as “true/true” when, in fact, you did not.

    • 5 Mark Frank August 27, 2012 at 3:54 pm


      I am struggling to understand what you write. My sincere answer is true/true and I have explained why. It would help if you would explain why you think I should have answered false/false – then we can have some kind of discussion.

  4. 6 lpadron August 27, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Hello Mark. I’m an amateur so I apologize if I’m off base here.

    If I read you correctly you believe that there is no binding-ness to moral language. Is this right?

    You wrote:

    “The other thing I am doing is expressing (but not describing) my abhorrence of the act and my hope and belief that others will agree with me.”

    After reading your “Subjective need not mean trivial” paper I think you’d want others to agree with you because torturing babies falls into the category of non-trivial matters.

    And here’s why I get stuck.

    You distinguish between trivial and non-trivial matters by way of the funny film/two producers analogy. But it seems to me that your producers still have an objective marker which guides their thinking: money. The decision is made “major” by virtue of the amount of dough they stand to win or lose (if it’s an Adam Sandler film they shouldn’t hesitate. Good or bad his films always make money).

    But on the materialist view what is the objective marker by which the torturing of babies is rendered more evil than say, pulling weeds from a garden?

    Again, I apologize if I have this all wrong. Finally, I appreciate you post very much.


    • 7 Mark Frank August 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm


      Please don’t apologise. I really appreciate your comment and you raise a good point.

      In the case of the film producers the key thing is that they both have an interest in each other’s subjective opinion. It is not acceptable to either of them to just say “well that’s your opinion” and leave it at that – because action has to be taken.

      In the case of the babies it is not acceptable for you and I to say “that’s our opinion” while someone else thinks it is OK – because we passionately want those babies not to be tortured – we, like most humans, have compassion. There are pyschopaths in the world and we cannot logically prove to them that torturing babies is wrong – but we really want to make sure they don’t do it.

      In film producer’s case the objectivity comes from financial interest. In the ethics case it comes from compassion.

      In response to your first question – I am never sure what people mean when they talk about “bindingness” of moral language. Do you mean there is no ultimate sanction if you don’t conform? If so, yes, I don’t think moral language is binding.

  5. 8 Brent August 27, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    Mark, do you not think you fundamentally changed Barry’s question?

    Your answer in response to your question is “true/true”, but that is because you have already stripped objectiveness from the meaning of morality. If you answered Barry’s question, which you know contains objectivity in morality, the answer cannot be anything but “false/false” by virtue of the fact you do not believe in an objective, binding, morality.

    • 9 Mark Frank August 27, 2012 at 5:07 pm

      Barry didn’t ask if there was morality referred to something objective. If he had I would have answered differently.

      We appear to be arguing about the meaning of moral statements. I gave my explanation of what I mean. What do you mean when you say “child torture is evil?”

  6. 10 Brent August 27, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    I’ll try to get back to this tomorrow.

    For now: Do you or do you not know that Barry believes that actual morality necessarily entails objectivity?

    And, do you not understand that the real point of asking the questions is to determine if one accepts an actual, objective, morality?

    The question of objectivity is really what’s on the table here. That being the case, you answered “true/true” but plainly say you don’t accept an objective (transcendent) morality.

    • 11 Mark Frank August 27, 2012 at 5:34 pm


      Do you or do you not know that Barry believes that actual morality necessarily entails objectivity?


      Do you not understand that the real point of asking the questions is to determine if one accepts an actual, objective, morality?


      You answered “true/true” but plainly say you don’t accept an objective (transcendent) morality.


      Barry was attempting to prove that there was an objective transcendent morality because he couldn’t see how anyonecould reject that and still answer true/true. I (and some others) answered true/true and explained why we could do this sincerely without accepting an objective transcendent morality. I don’t see the problem.

      • 12 Brent August 28, 2012 at 6:11 am

        You don’t see the problem? Let’s remove the trees so you can see the forest of a problem, then.

        Simplifying what you’ve now already agreed with:

        Barry asked: Does objective, universal, transcendent morality exist?

        You answered: Yes, and let me explain why not . . .

      • 13 Mark Frank August 28, 2012 at 6:32 am

        But Barry did not ask “Does objective, universal, transcendent morality exist?”. He asked whether child torture was evil under all conditions at all times. He probably thought that answering “yes” to this implies an objective morality. I explained why it does not.

        Still waiting for your definition of evil.

  7. 14 Brent August 29, 2012 at 6:31 am

    Sorry for the slow reply.

    Well, let me answer your question with a question concerning evil. Whatever may be said that one means by it, do you not think that evil is wrong? Agreeing that it is should be sufficient for us to continue on other points. Although, I don’t know how you can get around the concept of “wrong”, either, so you probably will not agree that evil (or anything) is wrong.

    Now, you have a problem. To who or what do you appeal when you express your abhorrence to the culture that enjoys child torture? You act as if they should listen to you, as if you had a higher standard of “morality”. But, if they realize that not even you, yourself, believe in any objective morality, could you blame them for laughing in your face and forcing you to watch them torture children while eating popcorn?

    And, concerning your paper, you are trying to make a distinction without a difference. To say that something is not trivial does exactly nothing to solve your problem. Trivial itself must adhere to some unchangeable standard; if not, triviality doesn’t exist objectively either. Triviality is trivial.

  8. 15 Brent August 29, 2012 at 4:47 pm


    Would you be wrong if you changed your opinion about child torture being bad, or abhorrent? You may not see how you ever would change your thinking, but I’m asking if you would be wrong if you did.

  9. 17 Brent August 30, 2012 at 3:33 am

    Evil is simply another word, in my opinion, that means wrong; objectively wrong. It is usually only used for what one thinks extreme, but, being a Christian, I say it means objectively wrong in any “degree”, though I wouldn’t usually use the word unless speaking of something that makes me, and probably most people, really cringe. In fact, however, there is no degree in evil or wrong, they are just facts based on unchanging standards of God and His character.

    So, you say you think you would be wrong to change your opinion about child torture being abhorrent. In that, you affirm an objective moral code. Saying you would change your mind about what that code does or does not allow doesn’t speak to the code’s existence, only a tenet of the code, and to have a tenet the code must exist. To say you would then think you were right is as much an acknowledgement of the code as to say that you would be wrong to have changed your opinion.

    The fact is, Mark, you acknowledge the code every day, all day, and I think you enjoy doing it; you should. Denying the objectivity of it in thought isn’t enough to deny its existence in reality and practicality, and since that’s the case, you should consider the strong objection to your thoughts by actual practical life which is around, and in, you. This is the real point. The code isn’t just within you, it’s within us all, much like mathematics, and if that’s the case, it is also “out there”. You must ask yourself the question why. Why do not only I, but all people abhor child torture? Why do not only I, but all people abhor being lied to?

    If you are honest and consistent in your denial of objectivity in morality, you will find that you have in fact ripped out the very foundation of the whole universe. To deny objective right and wrong is to deny good, better, and best, too. It is to deny high and low. It is to deny meaning in language, for if there is no actual right and actual wrong, then a word cannot actually mean anything. To say the sun comes up will mean nothing to me; we may as well grunt and groan. It would be easier and have just as much meaning. And this reminds me of Lewis’ point in The Abolition of Man:

    “Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to man. The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be hence forth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?”
    -The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, The Abolition of Man, pg. 484

    “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”
    -The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, The Abolition of Man, pg. 487

  10. 19 Brent August 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    There are four paragraphs in my last comments. I’ll assume number 1, being my opinion, is fine and not what caused your desire to stop our chat.

    No.2: How can you use the words right and wrong without acknowledging objective standards?

    No.3: This is, first off, a compliment. I assume you are a descent and moral person by either of our standards. All I’m saying is that you are denying the “oughtness” of morality in your philosophy, while acting as if you ought to in your daily life.

    No.4: I have to assume this is what you really have a problem with. But why should you have a problem with me pointing out the logical conclusions of your own stated standard?

    How can you have a good if you don’t have an objective standard somewhere back of it? Do you think that because we also use good, better, and best to refer to those things which really are subjective that there is no need of an objective backing for other uses? Is saying, “It is good not to lie”, only subjective? If there is no objective standard to which good refers, then you are simply stating your preference on par with your favorite flavor of ice cream.

    And why do you just subjectively decide to start with the meaning of language as having an objective standard? When I say “the sun comes up” is meaningless, how are you to convince me it does actually have meaning? They’re just words, I say. But they have an agreed upon meaning, you say. WAIT JUST THERE! You have made a stealth appeal to an objective standard that you really believe in: Namely that reasonable men ought to accept the standards generally agreed upon in society. You see, you cannot get away from making “ought” judgments. You may think you aren’t doing so because you’re appealing to a “general agreed upon” something. Where the problem is is in your appeal to a standard that men ought to accept this “agreed upon” something. You’ve snuck in a standard that you really believe in after all.

    So, why ought I agree with the standard meaning of any word? And, if I ought not, then why do you take exception to me pointing out that the logical implication of your philosophy is meaninglessness?

    • 20 Mark Frank August 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      Brent is wasn’t any particular thing you wrote. There just comes a time in these debates where you realise they are no longer fruitful.

      But as you have gone to the effort – one more time. I don’t think it is necessary to have a code or standard of comparison to think something is wrong, just as we don’t need a standard of funniness to decide a film is funny. We just laugh.

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