Friday, December 01, 2006

Warburton and the Obliger Argument

In the argument to which Cockburn is responding, Warburton is addressing Bayle's attempt to argue that atheists can have, on their own (i.e., without borrowing illegitimately from theists), an idea of morality. So we should be careful in the first place, inasmuch as Warburton's argument is made in Bayle's terms. This sort of situation -- in which one philosopher (Cockburn) is responding to another philosopher's (Warburton's) response to another philosopher (Bayle) who is responding to a common belief -- is a common kind of situation in the history of philosophy; it is also a difficult one to navigate properly, since the context is constantly shifting. In what follows I will be ignoring what Bayle's widely diffused arguments on this were in their original context and focus on the argument, as Warburton constructs it by gathering it together from these disparate sources; then I will look at Warburton's key argument, what I will call the Obliger Argument. This will prepare us to look at Cockburn's response to the Obliger Argument in particular.

The Innocence of Atheism Argument

The Bayle-based Innocence of Atheism argument, as Warburton constructs it, can be summarized roughly along the following lines (as the atheist himself might reason):

(1) While nature is not modeled on the ideas of a workman, she nonetheless produces her diversity in such a way that different species have different essential attributes, independently of us. Thus, fire and water are distinct in themselves regardless of whether we think they are; so on with love and hate, affirmation and negation, and so forth. We learn these natural distinctions by comparing and contrasting. Likewise, even setting aside the question of moral distinctions, there must be natural distinctions between truth and falsehood, gratitude and ingratitude, and so forth. They are naturally separable from each other.

(2) However, we can attribute the same necessity of nature to the relations between things and to the rules by which we distinguish those relations. The rules of reasoning are an example of this. These rules are independent of us; syllogisms don't work the way they do by our arbitrary fiat, but because they are right and true in themselves.

(3) If there are certain and immutable rules for the operation of the understanding, there must be similar rules for the determination of the will. For these rules are not arbitrary but necessary. The most general such rule is that we ought to will what is in conformity with right reason; it is an evident truth that it is fitting for a reasonable creature to conform to right reason and unfitting for such a creature to recede from that standard.

The implicit conclusion, of course, is that the atheist is not, qua atheist, shut off from morality. Warburton concedes (1) and (2). (3), however, he denies. He takes 'natural essential differences' to have the property of creating a fitness to act accordingly; that is, given that fire and water have different properties, it is fitting for a reasonable creature to take those different properties into account when we act. Moral differences, however, create not only a fitness to act but an obligation, and, Warburton insists, there is no moral difference that does not impose such an obligation, and no obligation that is not due to a moral difference. If this is granted, then showing that right reason alone cannot impose an obligation will show that knowledge of what conforms to right reason does not constitute knowledge of moral differences; and atheists, as such, have no moral obligations if they are right in being atheists. To argue this, Warburton puts forward the Obliger Argument.

The Obliger Argument

This is Warburton on the Obliger Argument:

Obligation, necessarily implies an obliger: The obliger must be different from, and not one and the same with the obliged: To make a man at once the obliger and the obliged, is the same thing as to make him treat or enter into a compact with himself, which is the highest of absurdities. For it is an unquestioned rule in law and reason, that whoever acquires a right to any thing from the obligation of another toward him, may relinquish that right. If therefore the obliger and obliged be one and the same person, there all obligation must be void of course; or rather, there would be no obligation begun: Yet the Stratonic atheist is guilty of this absurdity, when he talks of actions being moral or obligatory.


The key principle here, that obligation implies an obliger, may not seem immediately obvious; but there is quite a bit to be said for it. For one thing, even if it is not always true, it clearly is true for many of our obligations. For instance, your employer obliges or obligates you to do many tasks for which you would otherwise have no obligation; and your employer is himself obliged or obligated by higher authorities; and so forth. And the claim is not merely a cultural relic of Warburton's time. To give just one example: Anscombe makes very much the same argument in her extremely influential article, Modern Moral Philosophy, which should be read in conjunction with the passage from Warburton above.

It needs to be kept in mind that here, as in Anscombe's essay, there is no assumption that everything we call morality falls under the scope of moral obligation. In fact, Warburton has explicitly denied this. He has conceded that atheists can tell the difference between gratitude and ingratitude; and that this difference sparks a tendency in them to act according to that difference. He has also conceded that they can have moral sentiments, i.e., a taste for moral action. They still may think it smart and desirable; but 'smart and desirable' and 'obligatory' can be very different kinds of things. What he is denying is that atheists have any (consistent) reason to think of any part of the morality they know as obligatory.

Cockburn, as we shall see, contests this, and with a very interesting and (I am inclined to think) powerful line of reasoning. I will get to her response in the next post on this topic. But I want to underline the fact that Warburton's argument is far from silly; and that, utterly implausible though Warburton's claim that morality properly speaking is constituted entirely by the will of a superior, it is a claim backed by serious arguments. This is important not only for understanding Warburton, but is even more important for my purpose, which is to understand Cockburn in her response to Warburton.

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