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Euthyphro dilemma, divine command theory, etc.

Underseer

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A while back on the old forums, I posted a link to a video discussing the "superiority of secular morality."

While I had a problem with the framing, I agree with the overall point. Considering the well-being of others is a better way to make moral decisions. This video looks at the flip side of the coin and points out some of the things that are wrong with using religion as a means of discerning right from wrong:



Mostly, the discussion focuses on the Euthyphro dilemma and divine command theory, and frankly this gentleman explains it far better than I could.

In a nutshell, even if you define morality as "what god wants," at some point you still have no choice but to develop a working definition of objective morality that does not involve an appeal to authority, or else your moral claims become incoherent, but if you develop a definition of objective morality that does not involve an appeal to authority, then why bother with the appeal to authority at all? Why not simply cut out the middleman?
 

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I've always thought "God is good", and similar phrases such as "God is Holy", is an empty phrase. Because if what God does is good because he wills it, therefore "God is good" only means "God acts in a typical fashion for his taste", no matter how cruel or unequitable he may be acting on a given day.

If what God does is good because he wills it, ethics is meaningless. "Objective" ethics self-destructs.
 

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I've always thought "God is good", and similar phrases such as "God is Holy", is an empty phrase. Because if what God does is good because he wills it, therefore "God is good" only means "God acts in a typical fashion for his taste", no matter how cruel or unequitable he may be acting on a given day.

If what God does is good because he wills it, ethics is meaningless. "Objective" ethics self-destructs.

Yeah, that's the Euthyphro dilemma.
 

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I agree with what you say. The problem as I see it, is belief in belief. Many people are simply convinced that religion teaches morality, and our culture reinforces this belief through everything from fiction on television to Christian prison programs. Most people simply aren't vested in thinking through this topic in any detail. Thus, they are very frightened by any attempt to provide an ethical foundation that doesn't include god and religion. I think many of them honestly believe that if we peek behind the curtain too closely, all hell will break loose.

I think ethics is one of those subjects, much like evolution or quantum physics, which is counter-intuitive and complicated. Religion provides that simple answer that people are looking for to explain the myriad of human behaviors that are expressed. The fact that it also ties in to people's self identity makes it especially resistant to change or new information as it comes along. Hey, I'm a good person, I can prove it, I'm a bible believing Christian that goes to church twice a week. I'm trustworthy, I'm honest, and I know that one day I'll be judged by someone that watches me 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Who would knowingly put their eternity in jeopardy by living an evil life?

The problem is, it obviously doesn't work. Christians (or members of any religion) act no better than anyone else. Just about everyone basically thinks they're a good person, overall. Everyone, irregardless of which religion they follow, is fully capable of offering any number of rationalizations for bad behavior. The problem lies in that a system of ethics based on a religious context has no outside reality check, and that ethics often is based not what's happening in the here in now, but what may happen in the afterlife. This (in my opinion) provides an even easier pathway to rationalizing bad behavior as good, even in the presence of obvious suffering. It also allows for a greater degree of control by one in authority that represents the perfect source of your morality. With no margin of error comes absolute conviction and black and white thinking.
 

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In a nutshell, even if you define morality as "what god wants," at some point you still have no choice but to develop a working definition of objective morality that does not involve an appeal to authority, or else your moral claims become incoherent, but if you develop a definition of objective morality that does not involve an appeal to authority, then why bother with the appeal to authority at all? Why not simply cut out the middleman?

Why have morality at all? And after that, why call it "objective"?

Humans seem to be the only animal who needs to codify our behavior toward others. We even extend our moral behavior to animals, who will happily eat us, given the chance. Morality and moral codes are the kind of things people discuss after the problem of being eaten by a large animal has been reduced to close to zero.

One thing that should be kept in mind when discussing moral codes is, they apply only to humans. Animals and Gods are exempt.
 

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Why have morality at all? And after that, why call it "objective"?

Humans seem to be the only animal who needs to codify our behavior toward others. We even extend our moral behavior to animals, who will happily eat us, given the chance. Morality and moral codes are the kind of things people discuss after the problem of being eaten by a large animal has been reduced to close to zero.

One thing that should be kept in mind when discussing moral codes is, they apply only to humans. Animals and Gods are exempt.

We're the only animal to talk about standards of behavior because so far as we know, we're the only species capable of communicating abstract ideas like that. Every social species has a standard of behavior even if they don't talk about it.
 

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We're the only animal to talk about standards of behavior because so far as we know, we're the only species capable of communicating abstract ideas like that. Every social species has a standard of behavior even if they don't talk about it.

Mark Twain said, "Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to."

The key here is "social species" and "standard of behavior". Morality and moral codes exist to make society more efficient by defining proper behavior within the group. When people live in close proximity, it is necessary to define who can claim property and how to deal with disputes over property. There are a lot of factors to consider and these vary widely across the globe. If a person has to constantly guard their stash, it leaves little time to gather more stash. Some kind of rule to protect stashes, makes it possible to collect more stuff than you can hold in both hands.

This is why we find societies where it is morally correct to cut off the hand of someone who gets caught stealing your stuff. Sexual morality, the rules of who can have sex with who, all go back to the idea of women being just another form of property. Within every group there are subgroups and the family is the smallest subgroup. Since women can produce new group members, they have to be carefully controlled.

What is right or wrong in any society's moral code may seem arbitrary to someone outside the group, but these things are rooted in traditions many thousands of generations old. There was a time when it made sense and made life easier for everyone. There is another key word, "easy". The easier life is, the less is at stake when someone violates the moral code. In most places on this planet, no one is going to starve to death, if a thief takes something. This has actually been true for a very long time, but only recently did we stop treating thieves the same as murderers.

By the same principle, the less important a woman is to protecting the group wealth, the less strict the sexual code becomes, even to the point where we now consider it immoral to treat her as property.
 

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Sure, some of our standards of behavior come from culture, but every social species has standards of behavior. They have to, or else being a social species would not work as a survival strategy.

Since humans are the only species capable of communicating abstract ideas, we can assume that the standards of behavior of all those other social species are largely (if not entirely) based on instinct. What's interesting is that while the standards differ from species to species, it's still based on what's conducive to the group's survival and/or well-being. Some species of ant and bee will eat the males after the mating flight because they serve no further use to the colony and it makes sense to recover as much of the chemical energy that was put into making them as possible. Humans are horrified by this standard because fertile human females don't have an army of infertile females to help with the raising of their young (for humans as well as ants/bees, raising young is unusually labor and time-intensive), and since humans do not follow the harem arrangement of most other mammals, the male is practically the most readily available source of rearing assistance for a fertile female. We are instinctively horrified when we learn about how ants and bees deal with drones after mating because such a practice would be particularly harmful to the rearing of our own young.

While some specifics of our standards of behavior are culture specific, in the broad strokes we make very similar moral decisions under similar circumstances (e.g. the cross-cultural morality study mentioned in Dawkins' God Delusion). If you had to choose between saving a baby and saving an older fat man, the same percentage of yuppies from New Jersey would save the baby as primitive Amazon residents who are barely aware of the modern world. It's not just that we give similar answers, but we give similar answers in the same percentages. Since we can assume that New Jersey yuppies have very different cultures and ideologies from primitive tribesmen from the Amazon, it seems that instinct plays a much larger role than culture or ideology in certain moral decisions.

In another study, neuroscientists were able to predict what moral decision a person would make seconds before that person was even aware that they had made a decision at all. Again, this suggests that a significant part of such moral decisions are not the product of conscious thought at all, much less ideology and culture.

Other studies in animal behavior sciences are showing that concepts we once thought to be uniquely human (i.e. a sense of fairness) are relatively common among social mammals. Since deer don't have ideologies, this again suggests that aspects of our moral decisions are largely the product of instinct.

While I have no doubt we can find certain specific circumstances in which ideology and/or culture play a dominant role in moral decisions, it seems to me that in most cases the function of ideology and culture is to provide rationalizations for decisions already made.

If I am right about this, then morality is not the product of our big fancy neocortices, but standards of behavior that are instinctual because they improved the survival and/or well-being of the groups our ancestors lived in. The primary question about ethics then becomes: when should we fight our own instincts because our circumstances have changed since the time of our distant ancestors?
 

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If you had to choose between saving a baby and saving an older fat man, the same percentage of yuppies from New Jersey would save the baby as primitive Amazon residents who are barely aware of the modern world.

When there are only two choices, the outcome is often as expected. This example does not seem to illustrate anything about primitive or modern society, since parenting is one of the most basic skills needed for any culture, no matter what level of technology. Of course, there are more than two choices. One does not have to save either one. That introduces some really interesting moral questions.

It's easy for this discussion to become an exercise in tautology. People always do what they think is right. Even the most evil act is justified in their own mind.

Moral codes are not about right and wrong, which is arbitrary and subjective. Moral codes define expected behavior and the sanctions for people who violate the code.
 

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When there are only two choices, the outcome is often as expected. This example does not seem to illustrate anything about primitive or modern society, since parenting is one of the most basic skills needed for any culture, no matter what level of technology. Of course, there are more than two choices. One does not have to save either one. That introduces some really interesting moral questions.

It's easy for this discussion to become an exercise in tautology. People always do what they think is right. Even the most evil act is justified in their own mind.

Moral codes are not about right and wrong, which is arbitrary and subjective. Moral codes define expected behavior and the sanctions for people who violate the code.

Sorry, but the thing that was odd about that study was that the same percentage gave the same answer regardless of which population was asked the question. If ideology and/or culture were a significant factor in those decisions, then we would expect different ideologies and/or different cultures to answer those questions in different percentages.
 

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Sorry, but the thing that was odd about that study was that the same percentage gave the same answer regardless of which population was asked the question. If ideology and/or culture were a significant factor in those decisions, then we would expect different ideologies and/or different cultures to answer those questions in different percentages.

As I said above, parenting is the very bedrock of human society, going back to our days in the tall grass. If there was to be a common thread in moral codes, it would be found in parenting.

Think about for a minute. Is there any culture which puts a high value on protecting old fat men? If there is, I haven't found it, yet. If you want to explore the effect culture has on moral codes, instead of a fat guy and a baby, make it a baby girl and a baby boy. Make it between a cute baby and a baby with a hair lip and a cleft palate. Then, you'll reveal the differences in how the moral codes of cultures differ.
 

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The thing I see in this video is a guy who wanted to get something settled. I never really figured out just what he meant by objective morality. A moral argument is one which can neither be proven true nor false. The guy in the video pretty much says as much with his examples. Perhaps morality can only be considered a set of preferences determined by social conditions and is only a concept that has very limited meaning. It usually reflects the experiences and preferences of the culture being considered at the time. We may not be able to settle any of this morality mater so long as there are people with different life experiences, different training, different religions, etc. While I feel a certain sympathy for the guy in the video, it is obvious he is just another poor soul (living breathing person) attacking a Gordian Knot and expecting to get it all untangled by lunch.
 

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As I said above, parenting is the very bedrock of human society, going back to our days in the tall grass. If there was to be a common thread in moral codes, it would be found in parenting.

Think about for a minute. Is there any culture which puts a high value on protecting old fat men? If there is, I haven't found it, yet. If you want to explore the effect culture has on moral codes, instead of a fat guy and a baby, make it a baby girl and a baby boy. Make it between a cute baby and a baby with a hair lip and a cleft palate. Then, you'll reveal the differences in how the moral codes of cultures differ.

Why do we need to look to parenting when we're already finding empirical evidence from sociology, neuroscience, and even animal behavioral science?
 

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Why do we need to look to parenting when we're already finding empirical evidence from sociology, neuroscience, and even animal behavioral science?

Empirical evidence of what? Why people prefer babies to fat old men?
 

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Empirical evidence of what? Why people prefer babies to fat old men?

That was a reference to a specific study mentioned in The God Delusion. Sorry for not providing links to any of the studies, but I also mentioned other studies: making moral decisions before we are aware a decision has been made, deer keeping track of which individual give more and which take more, etc.
 

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That was a reference to a specific study mentioned in The God Delusion. Sorry for not providing links to any of the studies, but I also mentioned other studies: making moral decisions before we are aware a decision has been made, deer keeping track of which individual give more and which take more, etc.

Most decisions made in a day are taken without a conscious train of thought or logical process. This is usually called intuitive reasoning. It is only when there is a great dilemma, such as lack of information or uncertainty of the outcome, do we stop and ponder what might be the correct action. That is, if we have the time.
 

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Most decisions made in a day are taken without a conscious train of thought or logical process. This is usually called intuitive reasoning. It is only when there is a great dilemma, such as lack of information or uncertainty of the outcome, do we stop and ponder what might be the correct action. That is, if we have the time.

If recent neuroscience is to believed, even when we think we're being cold and calculating and rational, we're often making snap decisions based on instinct and emotion.
 

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If we take it that far, then the idea that rationality is made of instinct and emotion is an instinctual emotional judgement. That's the Euthyphro Dillema all over again. Rationality or decision making can't have an ultimate source that doesn't undermine it, any more than morals can.

In practice, I think neuroscience is giving us useful information on the influences that underlie simple disinterested decisions. It doesn't invalidate the idea that we make conscious decisions for in broadly the manner that we think we do. It does point out that we're subject to influence over those decisions, but then we knew that anyway.

There is a need for caution on what conclusions you can draw based on the available evidence. You could take The God Delusion, count the number of statements concerning religion, blind faith, and it being undermined by science, and compare to the number of statements about just science, and conclude that no matter what Dawkins thinks motivates him or what he claims, he's basically a an anti-religion polemicist rather than a scientist. He'd disagree, of course, but we have data, and so can ignore him. But that's not a result based on an insight that's superior to Dawkins himself, or even to a neutral observer, it's just an artefact of the way the question has been framed and the data collected. (Given that the point of the book is how science undermines blind faith, any statement about science can be attributed to undermining blind faith, but not all statements about blind faith are science. Thus because of the topic of the book statements on blind faith will always outnumber statements on science). So what we end up with is a conclusion that may or may not be true, and which many doubtless sincerely believe to be true, but which doesn't really follow from the evidence presented. Not because there is anything wrong with the way we counted words, or the way we processed the data, but simply because the conclusion doesn't flow from the data collected.
 

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Can we get back to Euthyphro's dilemma? I'm sorry for the derail into instinct vs conscious thought in the development of moral choices, but I think this dilemma is particularly useful against biblical literalists and any other theist who insists that objective morality is proof of their religious beliefs, because the dilemma shows that objective morality cannot come from an external authority.

There are only two solutions to the dilemma: either abandon objective morality and embrace a fairly extreme form of moral relativism in which morality is defined by the whims of the claimed authority, or develop a definition of objective morality which does not require an external authority.
 

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Why have morality at all? And after that, why call it "objective"?
If it is external, not self-generated, it is "objective."
Humans seem to be the only animal who needs to codify our behavior toward others. We even extend our moral behavior to animals, who will happily eat us, given the chance. Morality and moral codes are the kind of things people discuss after the problem of being eaten by a large animal has been reduced to close to zero.

One thing that should be kept in mind when discussing moral codes is, they apply only to humans. Animals and Gods are exempt.
 

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If it is external, not self-generated, it is "objective."

That depends on what you mean by external. If you mean an external authority, then the whole point of the Euthyphro dilemma is that you can't get an objective morality from an external authority. An external authority can only give you moral relativism; if you want objective morality you have to come up with a definition that does not invoke an authority.

Thanks for, uh, helping get back on topic.

Mostly when I try to bring up the Euthyphro dilemma with a theist, it doesn't matter how carefully I explain it, or how many links I provide, they just keep re-asserting that an external authority is the only possible source of objective morality. They don't want to talk about it, they just keep re-asserting that. What am I doing wrong?
 

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Mostly when I try to bring up the Euthyphro dilemma with a theist, it doesn't matter how carefully I explain it, or how many links I provide, they just keep re-asserting that an external authority is the only possible source of objective morality. They don't want to talk about it, they just keep re-asserting that. What am I doing wrong?
Their objection is to moral relativism. That is, the contrast to "objective" morality is "relative" morality. Their use of "relative morality" means that each group gets to decide what is moral even when obviously immoral. ("What would stop a community from deciding pedophilia is wonderful when morality is relative? As in the forced marriage of children in Nigeria. [See today's news about the child (14) bride who poisoned her new husband and a couple of his friends.]")

Not that the US doesn't have its history, too. In Delaware in 1895 the age of consent was 7, although most colonies followed English Common Law: 10-12. Almost all states raised the minimum to 16 by 1920.

In the theist's world of objective morality from the Bible we find no age of consent, but at least one example of a child of three years being "taken to wife." Nevertheless the theist asserts that Biblical morality is Best. Somehow, though, the examples of Biblical immorality (how to do slavery right, baby brides, capital punishment (stoning, cruel but not unusual then) for a teen sassing the 'rents, and for gathering firewood on the Sabbath) are blithely ignored.

Theists say: If there is no God of Perfect Justice then others (not me, of course) have "gotten away with" injustice and will never be punished. Wouldn't it be great if that bad guy over there would suffer for his sadistic cruelty in the end?

Well, yes, for the other guy, they say. But me, I have adopted the God of Perfect Forgiveness. I am a serial sinner. I always feel bad about my sin and beg forgiveness (always granted) and do pretty well at not repeating sins, instead finding new and novel ones.

Morality is subjective. Can a robot be cruel to another robot? Can a robot be cruel to a human being? Moral judgment involves the subjective intent, a first-person conscious intent, on the part of an actor. The actor had a choice. There was a real sense in which the actor could have done differently. Because his or her choice could have been predicted to cause harm to someone [else] we judge that act immoral. (Libertarians insert the "else".)

Because morality is a judgement, a real judgment call, it is necessarily self-generated as all judgements are.
 

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What a strange and narrow definition of moral relativism.

So according to conservochristians, a statement like "It's moral when god does it, but not when you do the same thing" or "It's moral if god commands it, but not if you command it" do not count as moral relativism?
 

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Empirical evidence of what? Why people prefer babies to fat old men?

A little late to the game. How about that old chestnut Bonobos social organization versus Chimpanzee social organization.

Chimps & Bonobos
http://www.eva.mpg.de/3chimps/files/apes.htm

Item:

Bonobos are female dominant, with females forming tight bonds against males through same-sex socio-sexual contact that is thought to limit aggression. In the wild, they have not been seen to cooperatively hunt, use tools, or exhibit lethal aggression.

Chimpanzees are male dominant, with intense aggression between different groups that can be lethal. Chimpanzees use tools, cooperatively hunt monkeys, and will even eat the infants of other chimpanzee groups.

Right now I'd go so far as to say while there is obviously strong genetic components underlying social behavior an apes, including humans. The human historical long term, more down the road, influences seem to be linked to evolution of social behavior systems to the end that humans are currently reducing their tendencies to kill, one on one, through learned behavior and neighborhood organization. This suggests relativism is a practical part of human morality.

Obviously this is not instinct nor objective in any immediate sense. The apparent permanence of social sexual systems among Bonobos and Chimpanzees suggest historical trending relativism is not so much the case with our ancestors. Moral relativism seems a particularly important aspect of human social construction though. But, as I said above, human morality is neither instinctive or objective in any day to day sense. Perhaps our extremely long periods from birth to usefulness lead our species to use conditions to maintain and improve likelihoods that the maximum number of beings get to and perform mating.
 

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What a strange and narrow definition of moral relativism.

So according to conservochristians, a statement like "It's moral when god does it, but not when you do the same thing" or "It's moral if god commands it, but not if you command it" do not count as moral relativism?
Their morality is, they say, objective. It is right here in this book. Written down once and for all. Remove it from the oven, it is done. Objectively there.
Humanist morality is all about people feeling good and it is always sinful when it feels good. Those libertines.
 

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I guess I should fess up. I've been using a fairly sloppy and vague definition of "objective" here. Has everyone else been doing the same thing?

In the strictest sense, something that is objectively moral is moral regardless of the understanding or perceptions of sentient beings, but unfortunately, this is incoherent because understanding is an intrinsic part of the definition of moral. I mean, if someone doesn't understand why something is moral, we don't judge them the same way we would judge someone who understands why something is wrong and does it anyway. This is why most of us don't consider animals to be moral or immoral, or why when a machine goes out of control and hurts someone, we do not regard the machine as immoral.

So if we're using the philosophical definition of "objective," then the concept of objective morality is incoherent.

Should we have a discussion about what we mean when we say "objective" morals? Should we instead talk about normative morality?
 

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Mostly when I try to bring up the Euthyphro dilemma with a theist, it doesn't matter how carefully I explain it, or how many links I provide, they just keep re-asserting that an external authority is the only possible source of objective morality. They don't want to talk about it, they just keep re-asserting that. What am I doing wrong?

Perhaps a theist may think of the situation as something like this. In real life it is often difficult to be sure of what is right. To be sure of what is right, so the thinking may go, one would have to be an all-knowing, benevolent being. The theist doesn't have a problem with imagining an all-knowing, benevolent being. He already believes in one - God.

However, if in contrast you take an atheist like me, just as the idea of the existence of an all-knowing, benevolent being seems fanciful so does the idea of the existence of an objective morality that would be ascertainable by an all-knowing, benevolent being (were such a being to exist) seem fanciful. I have difficulty in conceptualising morality as a domain of moral facts in which a right answer to any moral problem could in principle be ascertainable by a benevolent, all-knowing being.
 
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But that's just it, Deb.

The theist can't say his magical being is moral without establishing a definition of morality that is independent of the magical being in question, but once you do that, why introduce the magical being at all into the equation?
 

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Just about everyone basically thinks they're a good person, overall.
Isn't this a statistical fallacy like everyone thinking they are more handsome, intelligent whatever than average? Isn't the reality that we all have a huge amount of baggage and false assumptions, which includes a belief in a relationship between religion and morality.
 

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Mostly when I try to bring up the Euthyphro dilemma with a theist, it doesn't matter how carefully I explain it, or how many links I provide, they just keep re-asserting that an external authority is the only possible source of objective morality. They don't want to talk about it, they just keep re-asserting that. What am I doing wrong?

The theist doesn't know she is equivocating. You have to catch her at it, and show her what she did.

That means
1. asking what she personally means by "objective," and getting her to explain why god-based morality fits that definition.
2. Ask her why atheist morality is not "objective."
3. Point out to her that she used a different test, a different definition of "objective morality" in the two cases.
4. Point out that her whole argument is based on that equivocation. There is no one definition for which god-based morality is objective and atheist morality is not.
5. Make your claim that, for any one definition, either god-based morality is objective and so is atheist morality, or atheist morality is not objective but neither is god-based morality.
6. At this point, expect her to change the subject.
 
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