Commenter T. Paine recently shared an article that attempts to prove God’s existence by appealing to moral knowledge that we supposedly obtain through the conscience. In its own words:
The simple, intuitive point of the argument from conscience is that everyone in the world knows, deep down, that he is absolutely obligated to be and do good, and this absolute obligation could come only from God…
However, since the article fails to show how the impulses or “information” that we receive from the conscience is actual knowledge, the entire argument falls apart.
This is a common problem in ethics. Our strong feelings about moral beliefs and our desire to have others obey them often lead us to speak of them as if they have the full force of fact, but we rarely bother to take the actual step of establishing them as such. When pressed to explain why, for examples, charity is good or murder is bad, we unconvincingly appeal to natural rights, gods, or empathy, as if we did not need to establish the existence and relevance of natural rights and gods or explain why empathy should define morality.
If we are a bit more honest, we appeal instead to an even less convincing authority: intuition. “I just know that it’s wrong,” we might say. But we all know that what seems to be true is not always true, so we need to be more rigorous.
When we speak of knowledge, we tend to mean one of two things: accurate information either obtained through observation or determined through reason, i.e. empiricism or rationalism. If we know the laws of physics, it is because we have observed our universe; if we can solve a logic problem, it is (perhaps) because we have intuitive knowledge of logical principles, e.g. modus tollens. Logical rules are necessarily true, as it is impossible to either provide an example of an exception or even imagine a universe in which exceptions could occur. Much of our knowledge combines the two approaches: we observe and deduce.
When we say that we “just know” that we are right, we attempt to carve out a space for moral knowledge in rationalism, in necessary truths. However, since we can imagine a world in which our moral claims do not hold true, our moral claims are not necessarily true and therefore cannot fall under this category.* Since they are also not observable (“murder is bad” cannot be observed unless “bad” is defined as some observable phenomenon, which is not the case here), we have no reason to call such moral convictions knowledge.
Some alternative perspectives on morality offer ways to speak of moral claims as truth. Desirism, for example, would have us think of a moral proposition (“one should do X”) as a statement about desires, e.g.
Premise 1: Laws against murder are necessary for a peaceful society
Premise 2: I want a peaceful society
Conclusion: Therefore, I should support laws against murder
However, to do this effectively (especially to convince other people to do what we think is right), we have to let go of the false authorities and excuses that we use to give our moral convictions artificial, undue weight. A desire is not worthwhile because a god says so or because it seems right; it is worthwhile to the extent that it allows us to satisfy other desires.
*We also have diverse moral convictions, so if everyone were to claim that he “just knows” that his convictions are true, we would still not know which set of convictions–if any–is true.