It would be fair to admonish the young people of today for being vain, selfish, and simply swimming in the enchantment of illusions of their own making. It would be fair to criticize the youth of the day for rebelling against everything, regardless of merit or warrant, in the final analysis slowly fading the issues of rebellion into the backdrop making rebellion itself the chief end. But along with so much chaos among the youth, there are young people today who care deeply about the issues humanity is wrestling with and there is a sense of great optimism about the progress of humankind in its elusive journey to find itself, its ultimate purpose and destiny. Some of the young people today also care about world peace, ending hunger, selfless devotion to one another and deep lasting friendships that are hard to tear apart. The youth of today likes to decorate reality with great and wonderful pursuits, and for this there should be a true sense of elation, for these are the truly meaningful ends.
But however wonderful and virtuous these pursuits may be, in the total sum of things, they are forever shrouded in nonsense without the centerpiece. After all, what are virtues without God? Imagine if you will we decorate a room by painting the walls a nice vibrant yellow with “Peace” written in large red type. We hang a painting that reads, “Selflessness” in the middle of the biggest wall. We fill the room with things we want, perhaps an armchair embroidered with the word, “Tolerance” in the corner. We fill this room nice and full with virtuous things. But, when we look at the room it feels a little dim, and we get the feeling that something more substantial is actually missing.
Virtues without God: What Have We Forgotten?
What we have forgotten is the light overhead in the very center of the room. We have forgotten God. And without God who sheds His light on the things we’ve added to this room, we cannot see why they ultimately matter. After all, if a human being is nothing but an extravagant animal, why should we care about tolerance, or selflessness, or peace? If this life is all that there is, why not live selfishly and without regard for others? As the sweeping secularism dehumanizes mankind to the level of other animals, should we not feel more at ease to follow the dictates of nothing but mere instinct that also guides the animal kingdom? Why curb our desires and lusts? Why should we strive for equality? Why give humanity more worth than the common housefly? Within a reality where the purpose of life is nothing more than survival and reproduction, why would we ever strive for moral excellence, goodness or righteousness? And, were we to change the way we live to be more in line with this view of “reality” we think is legitimate, would we be able to find happiness? The answer is a resounding ‘No.’
We crave the things that we feel are intuitively part of our very nature. We crave the world for which we were ultimately made. And what of this desire that just can’t come to fruition? What of this internal need that just won’t be quenched? C.S. Lewis put it best,
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”1
I venture to say that the ultimate fulfillment of these internal cravings will continue to elude us until the grandeur of heaven is exposed to us in all its overwhelming majesty. But for now, we will continue to crave the proper things, mostly without understanding why we crave them. The longing of the human heart for the things that give it true joy is not understood when the room is dark. We do not and cannot understand why the things we aspire to, should be aspired to. They seem good to us, but we do not understand why that is so, and the pursuit of human progress plunges us deeper into confusion about the things we intuitive feel are good things without being able to justify them as such. As the brilliant writer C.S. Lewis once wrote,
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”2
The innocent fervor of radical optimism has been indwelt with too much naivety that it fails to adequately realize the true ills of humankind, that at its core humanity is a paradox! We are both great and wretched; we are always and forever at our best and at the same time at our worst; our greatest ally, and our worst enemy. The ultimate problem with humanity is humanity itself, and our pointless pragmatic efforts to correct ourselves have brought upon far bigger problems. We have made our homes in the prisons we erect. We have hardened our hearts towards God, and now we feel that our humanistic efforts devoid of the “encumbrance” of a God is sufficient. We have exalted ourselves to the status of Godhood and have domesticated God. Yet in the final analysis when we are finally faced with a catastrophe that shakes us to our very core and finally faced with, but unable to account for our own paradox, sitting in the darkness, confused, answerless and empty handed, without direction we look up at the sky and something inside makes us shriek with fear, ‘Life is meaningless without God and so is every virtue!’
(inspired by the passing of a young man who shall remain anonymous, and a youth pastor whose name I do not know)
1 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperOne, 2001; revised and amplified edition) 136–137.
2 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Macmillan Co., 1949) 92.
9 thoughts on “Can There Be Virtues Without God?”
[the rest of this comment has been edited out to keep out an out of context link]
I’m an atheist, and I have to disagree. I don’t miss religion nor its teachings. We don’t need a god to be moral and we never have. A strong (and obvious) basis for morals is empathy, which is essentially hardwired into all of us. It’s why we take pity on others and why we save abandoned baby animals and love them like our own. Another obvious source is our desire to not be harmed, and hence, not harm others — and the security that comes from knowing that you don’t need to fear your fellow man 100% of the time. We’re animals, yes, but we’re social animals, and these sorts of “contracts” (formalized into laws) also exist in other social animals, and I assure you they do /not/ have the ability to grasp the concept of a god.
If you feel like you don’t need to help others and that the only way you can be persuaded to do so is by going to church, then by all means, continue to go. However, don’t assume everyone needs the baggage that comes with it. If you want to be a good person, then get up and do it. It isn’t that hard, and it has never been. Don’t let someone tell you that you can only be a good person and do good things if you have a god. Screw them, cut the middle man, and just do it. In fact, when you think there may not actually be a god to help you or anyone else, it does give you a sense of “OK, I’ve got to do this or /nobody/ will.”
I haven’t really met too many Christians who I would say are sufficiently different from the average Joe (or maybe the Average Joe is a Christian too?). They pass up homeless people just like everyone else, they complain about taxes (and ironically, tithing is essentially that, too), and they only deeply care about generosity between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or if there is a hurricane wrecking some part of the nation. Yeah, I’m not impressed.
But wait, let me guess, they aren’t true Christians. If I had only met /true/ Christians, then I’d see the light! Because I haven’t heard the “No True Scotsman” argument a thousand times. The fact is this, you don’t get to tell me that they aren’t true Christians either. In fact, according to your beliefs, I’m pretty sure the Christian god gets to decide that. However, if they apply the label to themselves, well, then I think it’s fair game. And considering that something like 3/4 of America is Christian, but the general amount of indifference and hate in America is staggering, I’d say that there either aren’t a lot of /true/ Christians, or being Christian is not a generally good predictor of moral and wanting to help the world.
Finally, your last paragraph is just noise. True, we are paradoxical, but not for the reason you think. We all think we’re above average in just about every way. We all think we don’t get fooled easily. We all think we’re nice. We all think we’re compassionate. Yet clearly, we’re not. It’s an interesting phenomenon, to be sure, and it has a name. The Self-Serving Bias. So why is the solution “god”? Because when we refuse to take responsibility, we’d rather look toward someone or something else to do it for us, much like a child to its mother. Well, congratulations, you look towards a possibly fictional being for direction and answers because you’re too dim to figure it out yourself. How about this, “The purpose of life is to enjoy life and make it a better place.” See, no god required. I live this philosophy by having fun, loving hard, doing good works, being honest, treating others as equally as I can muster, and giving until it hurts. But you won’t find me on my knees thanking a god that may or may not even exist. My parents are almost solely the reason for my success, and their parents before them, and so on. It’s the same reason why the most accurate predictor of a person’s success and moral code and religion and values will be what their parents had to offer, not because some god willed it. That excuse has no explanatory power and doesn’t provide a basis for a call to action.
So if you want to be virtuous, find a virtuous person and follow their example and see how it makes you feel. That’s basically all anyone does, the only difference is the role model. At no point do you need to thank a god for your actions and decisions that are good. He doesn’t deserve the credit for your good deeds.
@Patrick, first, apologies for being so late in this response, as I’ve been extremely busy of late. I did want to point out that this particular post was one that is rhetorical in nature and utilizes creative writing, and not one that is technical with arguments in favor of my position. This is not to say that those arguments do not exist, but it’s just not the point of the article. I will maintain as I concluded the post – ‘Life is meaningless without God and so is every virtue!’ That said, let me reply to some of what you said.
Second, I will say that because most discussions of this nature are very counterproductive, I no longer reply to every single one of them. It seems like there is an online spring of misinformed atheists who typically communicate the same arguments, arguments that have thorough and compelling rejoinders, which are either conveniently ignored or unknown. I decided to answer you because your comment seemed genuine, though in part insulting. Your commons are interesting as most of what you wrote is in anticipation of what a typical Christian *would* say (stereotype much?), but perhaps your calculations are not as right as you may have assumed? And yes, I do realize that there are multitudes of very misinformed Christians who perpetuate horrible reasons for their view as well.
You start off your diatribe by saying, “I don’t miss religion nor its teachings. We don’t need a god to be moral and we never have.” Here and following you’ve made three errors. The first, is conflating moral epistemology with moral ontology. The second is pulling objective moral laws and duties out of thin air. The third, is committing the genetic fallacy of assuming an explanation by pointing for a thing by pointing to its origin, which does not of logical necessity explain away the thing you are examining. It’s another logical fallacy.
With respect to your first error, the existence of objective moral laws and duties is completely separate from whether or not creatures abide by those laws and duties. One has to do with its ontology or its very existence, the other with its epistemology, or how we come to know them. I’ve not argued argued against how we come to know them. Those you’ve imagined as a straw man in order to easily try to refute. Surely, atheists may be moral people (I have friends who are), and that is not what I’ve argued against here or anywhere else. The issue is not whether we can be moral without God, but whether there is such an objective thing as moral laws and duties in the first place. Sure, coming to know what is moral is largely a process of enculturation and our parents are certainly heavily involved in that process, but that does not mean that what ALL parents teach their children is what constitutes an objective set of virtues in the first place.
With respect to your second error, on atheism, there is no ground for supposing moral values and duties to be objective. On this view, since change (natural processes) is solely responsible for all of reality, there is no objective “ought.” Evolution provides a description of how things operate/have operated. It does not give us prescriptions for how things ought to operate. Social contracts do not provide a foundational means by which creatures may call something objectively moral, especially not when fully volitional creatures employ reasons for their actions. Within naturalism, however, much social abstraction is added onto the basic building blocks of reality, namely survival and reproduction, creatures may be hardwired to “act cohesively” to those ends, but this is nothing more than a means to an end. It is NOT an objective moral framework. It does not mean we have an objective frame of reference for moral laws and duties, it simply means those are the acts that will allow for mere survival and reproduction – it is nothing more than a means by which we may propagate our DNA. There is nothing meaningful beyond that. Truly objective moral laws must supersede mere conventions, and this ultimately means that they must transcend the mere processes that allow for sentient creatures to operate.
The later portion of your comment is laced with more of the faulty assumptions, insults and errors. You said,
//Well, congratulations, you look towards a possibly fictional being for direction and answers because you’re too dim to figure it out yourself. How about this, “The purpose of life is to enjoy life and make it a better place.”//
I will overlook the insults in that section, and though I may be “too dim to figure it out” I do want to point out that I usually simply remove those comments without replying to them. If one must resort to name calling and insults to try to make a point, they have already lost the arguments they intend to have others take seriously. By virtue of the specific charge you set against me, it does not look as if you do exemplify the characteristics that I would see as virtuous, so you may look good in your own eyes similar to the paradox that you were referring to. You do not know me, nor do you know my life. I was once an agnostic, and I was convinced that Christianity was true by comparing it and contrasting it with other worldviews. You’re also mistaken when assuming that it never occurred to me to look for the purpose of life in such simplistic terms. The issues I’m wrestling with are far more complex than your suggested simplicity. On naturalism, there is no adequate justification why a reasonable creature should choose to be “virtuous” by some ultimately senseless standard against his own desires and self-fulfillment, if at its core all that exists are particles in motion that shape the bigger structures of reality. Many famous atheists (Nietzsche, most notably) have recognized this as well.
As you conclude you write,
//So if you want to be virtuous, find a virtuous person and follow their example and see how it makes you feel. That’s basically all anyone does, the only difference is the role model. At no point do you need to thank a god for your actions and decisions that are good. He doesn’t deserve the credit for your good deeds.//
That is not going to work out well. Feelings are notoriously unreliable. One cannot draw conclusions of what is virtuous and what is not by “see(ing) how it makes you feel” after the fact. However, it’s important to identify this as moral epistemology. This is because although we do have a conscience that acts as a moral compass, some people are great at breaking that compass in order to do what it is they would desire to do. But again, you refer to what “anyone does” with what they *ought* to do. Objectively speaking virtues have to do with what we *ought* to do, not what we try to do and see how it makes us feel. Actions are identified as “virtuous” when they exemplify moral excellence, goodness and righteousness. The problem is that within naturalism, such categories are meaningless for the various reasons I’ve already explained, and many other that I’ve not yet mentioned as this comment is extremely long as is and my time is short.
God does not need to get all the credit, even some of the credit for what we do. As fully volitional creatures we are both to be commended for our good deeds and to be held responsible for our evil deeds. The real problem is what I’ve already mentioned multiple times – we cannot define good and evil apart from the ontology of a moral code that transcends the agents within the system. How you come to know the code is a secondary matter altogether.
Hi! Thanks for posting my comment even though it contained disrespect as is. I appreciate the chance to reply as well, and I’ll make a more even-tempered reply. In it, I seek to give a more conversational and less rigorous argument that the use of “objective morality” is problematic in many ways, most importantly because it depends on our relative morality to accept it in the first place, and that because multiple standards of objective morality are proposed by humans (or gods?), that picking one to abide by effectively means that your morality is relative because the choice is not objective. I then would like to talk about why I don’t think objective morality is necessary for virtues but concede the points that in the absence of objective morality there can be no objective good/evil divide nor objective virtues — and why that is OK.
It’s long, and I don’t expect you to reply (though I would like it if you have the time), but I hope you find it at least thought-provoking and possibly find a moment to pause and reflect on it.
I see that you use the term “objective morality”. I don’t feel like I’ve pulled an object morality out of thin air and I don’t believe in an objective standard morality to begin with and I don’t feel uncomfortable about that fact. The Bible does offer a specific moral code that is more or less authoritarian, so in a sense, that is an objective (or as I would put it, arbitrary, as in coming from “some” source rather than an irrefutable logical axiom) standard. I don’t feel there is a burden of proof to reject of the claim that there is an objective morality, so I’ll say no more on that.
I don’t think relative morality is that foreign a concept, but it hides in places where people do not see it. I live in America, which is not a theocracy, and so the morality of actions changes every now and then. Even the Taliban, which seeks to set up about an about-as-fundamentalist-as-possible Islam has arbitrary tribal laws not found in the Qur’an (i.e. a source of objective morality).
The one thing that bothers me about proponents of the objective moral standard (e.g. god’s law) is that they accept it, but don’t give a reason /why/ they accept it. When you peel back the layers, it comes down to this – you accepted it because you read it, you thought on it, and you decided for yourself that it was a good. The part of “you thought on it” /is/ the relativistic part. If you decided it was /bad/ for example, then you wouldn’t have accepted it. I’m going to immediately discard the idea that you were merely indoctrinated and accepted something without actually making a moral judgment on it, because you are clearly a highly intellectual person.
Picking on Islam again, I could say that it is an objective moral standard (revealed by Allah), but when the Western educated people read verses of the Qur’an with recommendations like “cut off their [thieves’] hands”, we say, “How terrible and barbaric!”. Based on what standard? Because if you were raised in Saudi Arabia, that would be the obvious (and even divine) punishment that is completely morally correct. It’s because we have our own ideas about morality that we can make that judgement call in the first place. Or perhaps we tighten our belts of faith and denounce it because we’re sure that we picked the right objective standard.
Yet, when given two seemingly objective moral codes, e.g. one from the Bible, one from the Qur’an, we make our own judgement between them and reject one and accept another. (I’m assuming again here that if you are presented with a moral code, you won’t arbitrarily reject it regardless of content simply because it is not The Bible.) What is more, your choice of objective standards //relies heavily on where and how you were raised.// How then, is that objective? You can’t say that you picked the “real” objective standard because you used an objective standard to measure it — you wouldn’t even have that standard to judge it by! Moreover, every standard … relative to itself … would be perfect. At some level, you have to “just accept” (i.e. indoctrination) or you have to make a rational choice based on the text you’re reading and your own ideas of morality.
Fractally worse, let’s just look at the Bible. How did we decide that god was the “good being” and satan was the “bad being”? God sure does kill a lot of people in the Bible – yet you don’t conclude he is the evil one. Again, tossing aside pure indoctrination, you made a moral decision that despite (or perhaps because?) god killed these people, he does plenty of other “good” things and therefore must be the “good one”. Then, is something good because god did it (arbitrary morality) or is something good and therefore god did it (god does things that are good, but it is neither necessary or sufficient that god does something for it to be good)? I would argue that we decide on the goodness of actions based on our own morality. It just so happens that most of the time, god does something in the Bible that people tend to accept as “good”. Perhaps we just ignore the things that god does that we disagree with or just simply create rationalization [apologetics] to ensure that we have a sound image of god in our mind? Obviously, not everyone agrees with god’s actions or laws in the bible, or else there would be no need for apologetics because there would be no criticism. Then again, that presupposes there exists such a mental conflict. Personally, I’m shocked by people who can read the Bible and not find a single example of when god did something they considered to be “bad” — or maybe they are excellent believers? Either way, it doesn’t matter; when you accept one source as the objective morality, then it is immune to change and therefore above questioning. Or rather, you can question it; you’re just wrong, because anything outside of the prescribed definition of “good” cannot be “good” – which is less than satisfying in many cases – and something I won’t subscribe to.
Further, the number of denominations of Christianity and Islam alone should be a signal that relativistic moral effects strongly decide what we choose to accept as morality. How can it be simultaneously true and false that it is “bad” to drink wine [Baptist], or to use a condom [Roman Catholic]? Naturally, it can’t, so that means one is “right” and the other is “wrong”. How do we decide? Scripture, of course! Let’s go straight to the source of the objective morality! But then, if we assume that such denominations didn’t just pull these rules out of a hat and that they //do// have a scriptural basis for them, then clearly we have a problem. Someone must be wrong, someone must be right, but they both use scripture as evidence of their correctness! What can we do? The only thing that we know how to do: consider the scripture and make up our own minds….which is, sadly, a relative moral decision. The other possible answer is that the Bible contains self-contradictory material, but that’s probably not a position many Christians are comfortable taking and not one I care to really put forth, except to mention that it does resolve the issue of denominations while simultaneously offending more than a billion people.
In short, I think we depend and follow to a large degree on relative morality to decide what is virtuous. There is clearly disagreement within American society on this. Some people give a standing ovation to someone who bombs an abortion clinic, others see it as an act of domestic terrorism. What do pastors say about this? Well, if they were following an objective morality standard, then they should arrive at the same conclusion – yet this isn’t the case. If it was, then it wouldn’t be difficult to “correct” the wrongs in different denominations and create a unified Christian religion.
Don’t get me wrong, I think an objective morality makes life much easier, because the hard work of deciding difficult gray areas that affect many areas of society (e.g. abortion, criminal justice, prayer in school) can generally be reasoned through with ease. It’s also easy to rate ourselves and others based on it — something to measure against even if we fall short. It even gives us a goal so that we can constantly attempt to readjust our “flawed”, internal morality so that it better matches the objective source. It’s really nice and convenient and altogether a cool construct. It’s even very appealing. It’s like if we defined Pi to be 3.0, rather than a non-terminating, non-repeating real value. But such a definition has its flaws.
There are some awkward edge cases where objective morality from the Bible + Christianity strongly contradicts our intuitive sense of morality, yet due to the objective nature, makes perfect sense and is easy to reason about. Consider a mother with a newborn who has just baptized her baby. If she were to drown that baby immediately, would that baby’s soul go to heaven or hell? It has to go to one of the two places, by definition, and it’s virtually unthinkable that this baby’s soul should go to hell (Or rather, would you follow a god who declared the baby’s soul as evil and worthy of eternal punishment? Surely not.) So this mother, in act of love and/or insanity, gave her baby a one-way ticket to heaven. Is that virtuous or evil? Even if we say “evil”, then we can at least acknowledge that she sacrificed her humanity so she could guarantee that her baby could arrive in heaven — after all, after growing up, he or she could turn away and reject god and be doomed to hellfire. In a twisted sense, that’s kind of “virtuous” — ensuring a soul makes it to heaven — perhaps even the ultimate sacrifice: her soul for her child’s.
Another such awkward, counter-intuitive example is “all pygmies in remote jungles that never heard the word of god will go to hell” – John 14:6 shows that only through Jesus can we reach the Father, so if they //don’t// go to hell, then there exists a way to get to heaven without Jesus (ignorance?) – which clearly isn’t acceptable; yet it creates a situation where souls are eternally punished for something they didn’t even know about, which most empathetic people would probably find morally repugnant.
Similarly, a non-believing girl of age 4 could be raped and murdered – goes to hell because she denies or doesn’t know about Jesus – yet the rapist, who was shot by the cops, can make a deathbed conversion and baptism in the hospital and go to heaven, since a strong tenant of Christianity is “salvation by faith alone” – yet scenario this contracts our intuitive sense of justice but must be accepted due to the objective morality, which allows to us reason about such situations with certainty — or at least as much certainty as subscribing to the beliefs of a particular denomination of a particular religion provides us.
I will agree that with moral naturalism, virtues are meaningless in an objective context. Yet, I don’t feel any discomfort in this nor is it really that foreign a concept. You probably don’t consider it virtuous to memorize the entire Qur’an, but the Arabic language has the specific word of “hafiz” (Ar: ????) to describe such a person, which translates roughly to “protector [of the Qur’an]” and are held in high regard within the Muslim Ummah (worldwide community). Are they virtuous? If you ask a Muslim, then yes — because that’s what their objective morality tells them. Did you catch that? //Their objective morality standard//. What’s the point of an objective morality standard if it is relative to a person’s culture and/or religious beliefs? Should we even use the phrase “an objective morality” and not “THE objective morality”?
The problem with “everything is meaningless if everything is relative” attitude is that we don’t live in relative bubbles all by ourselves. To an extremely large degree, we share much of the same morality and virtues, and thus things /are/ comparable. In fact, interfaith dialogues have shown that there is a quite a bit of common ground, and the fact that we can have cultural virtues shows that, as a culture, we too can find enough common ground to function and laud and shame each other — i.e. to develop a sense of virtues.
And I’ll even agree that “we cannot define [an objective] good and evil apart from the ontology of a moral code that transcends the agents within the system”, but I don’t seek to do so. I don’t think it is necessary and it creates problems when someone has the boldness to disagree with those definitions. For example, I think it is evil to punish a person eternally for not believing in a man in the sky (to simplify it – since it is necessary, though obviously not sufficient) – but to both Muslims and Christians, this is perfect justice.
Yet despite the fact that I reject sources of objective morality, I consider many of the same things to evil that many believing folk do, so again, there is obviously enough common ground that we can co-exist on the same team and fight for the same things and denounce the same actions as “evil” even if someone, somewhere, would say that it isn’t. You may have one reason for denouncing it (“The Bible says it’s evil”) and I may have another (“I think it’s bad because it harms humans and I don’t like to harm humans”), yet we concur on the result. Much of the time, it doesn’t really matter whether someone, somewhere disagrees, what matters is the zeitgeist. Yes, the zeitgeist can change and yes it can be fallible, but that the whole point of a “war of ideas” — of which religion is very much an active combatant as are many other secular organizations. It’s odd that religions seek to state, essentially, “No, I win because god. Now here is your morality.” That’s not how it works. If it was, then you’d see Christian theocracies, but they are long since gone. Generally, Americans use the word “theocracy” negatively to describe what we consider backwards nations whose //only source// of morality is religion, rather worldly things like “international treaties” or “declarations of universal human rights”. But if you buy into the idea that god prescribed an objective morality for humanity and someone creates a secular law with the intent of superseding it, then what do you do? Of course god’s law is what you follow — but then isn’t this almost //exactly// the problem with giving women rights in nations like Saudi Arabia?
It’s strange isn’t it? I have absolutely no objective basis for doing anything that doesn’t help my own cause. I should be purely selfish and have no reason //not to be//, according to a naturalistic view, yet humans essentially don’t behave like that even without a religion and neither do I. I think people do a great disservice to humanity when they claim that everything would be a chaotic mess without objective morality, or pretend that humans would somehow be devoid of empathy. Even other social animals don’t behave like that. I’ve posited various reasons why I believe this to be the case, none of which require invoking an objective morality. However, in lieu of an objective morality, I would say that there are probably intrinsic behaviors, reactions, and feelings that are so common and whose existence is all but irrefutable that we could probably base a moral code off of them. Such tenants would include things like “safety is preferable to imperilment” and “life is preferable to death” — they aren’t random preferences but serve a strong purpose to keep the individual AND the society alive.
Yes, in a purely relative morality system, it is possible for people to disagree on a fundamental level and yes, this does make life more difficult. But it also allows change where change is needed (and sometimes where it is not). We’ve made a great deal of “moral progress” by banning slavery (I’d like to think) and by allowing women to vote, and in America, by creating a justice system that relies on secular law rather than scripture as the source of its judgement.
Technically, the Old Testament allows slavery, but we don’t support that now a days and when asked, we typically just write it off as a “thing of the time”. We even write off verses about wearing two types of material in the same garment as “some Old Testament laws that aren’t applicable now”. Isn’t it great that Christianity had a chance to shrug off some of these practices when the New Testament was compiled? But now it’s done, right? Morality is a solved problem – and Jesus is the answer?
Why not just take what is good from the Bible and discard what it bad? Doh, I used those words again — “good” and “bad”. That’s the problem. I can’t (as in, not allowed) to remove what is “bad” from my understanding of morality because objective moralities don’t get to be changed depending on how I feel, and thus I am stuck with whatever it is defined to be – whether or not it benefits society, myself, or anything at all. However, I suspect that this “picking-and-chosing” is actually what most people do when juggling the various and sometimes radical prescriptions of religion — simply write it off as some “contextual” thing that is to be ignored in our modern enlightenment — and it’s probably the source of much disagreement among believers.
So in conclusion, while objective morality seems desirable and neatly solves a vast multitude of problems that would otherwise require deep thought, debate, and disagreement, I think it does so in an insincere and suboptimal way — in the same way that killing all homeless people is, right now, the most effective known method to end homelessness. Yeah, it //works// but what about that one little problem – it’s terrible. I don’t disagree that objective morality makes life easier and things just “make sense” and fall into place and all that, but I don’t need that reassurance if it comes at the cost of possibly losing out on good moral codes. I support gay marriage mostly because I don’t have any reason to deny anyone marriage, yet with an objective morality of “marriage is between a man and a woman”, I //must// oppose it, even if it means heartbreak and ostracism to homosexual people. When asked why, all I can do is shrug and say “because god”. Do I want these people to hurt? No. Do I know of any reason other than god why they shouldn’t? No. Do I have the ability to tell them its OK? No.
Please brace yourself for the conclusion, as it is blasphemous but not directly insulting anyone on purpose, nor is there a good way to rephrase what I’m trying to say without the … blasphemy.
If I’m going to do harm to someone or deny them something, I want to have a good reason to do it. And honestly, even if the Christian god exists and the Bible was 100% true, I wouldn’t worship him, because I consider many of the moral decisions he made to be that of a thug boss — someone with power who can implement whatever morality he chooses due to this power. Would I bend my knee if forced? Yes. Would I acknowledge his power over my life? Yes. Would I agree with him? Nope. I may be a weak and insignificant atom in the face of god, but I haven’t killed anyone for arbitrary reasons, cursed generations of people, or killed all of the newborns for their parents’ sins, because I find that to be horrible. Short of literally murdering millions of people for any or no reason, it isn’t hard to be more moral than god. Yet, under an objective morality, this is simply is what it is — the will of god, and you have no right to place judgement upon it.
Actually, //I can//, because I’m a rational being and so are you. I reject objective morality wherever I find it because it is a deeply flawed concept that leads to various problematic behaviors that don’t always benefit society as a whole.
Thanks for the comment. To be completely candid with you, most, if not all of the objections you made, have been fairly adequately dealt with by theists of various stripes, specifically Christians, so inasmuch as I’m aware of those rejoinders and they have reasonable explanatory power over the questions, there is really nothing new that you’ve offered for me to reflect on personally. I reflected on these issues and many others years ago, prior to being convinced of the truth of Christianity, and subsequently writing my book in answer to many of the charges made by agnostics and atheists. I will, however, point out a few of your missteps, misconceptions and provide some additional resources.
Firstly, let’s deal with this as you’ve stated it: //I don’t think objective morality is necessary for virtues but concede the points that in the absence of objective morality there can be no objective good/evil divide nor objective virtues// Here you’ve basically agreed with me and the very message of my post by conceding that in the absence of objective moral laws and duties there can be no objective set of virtues. When you say that you //don’t think objective morality is necessary for virtues// what you’re essentially boiling it down to is that we can have a subjective set of what individuals, groups, and cultures would perceive to be virtuous without the need for objective moral laws and duties, and that I would agree with. But beware of the slippery slope. By this subjective notion of virtues, moral laws and duties become completely and absolutely relative and arbitrary. What this means is that it is even conceivable that one or more of such groups may come to the conclusion that what you and I may see as completely abhorrent, to be virtuous. This is because moral laws that would apply to everyone at all times within an objective moral framework would be seen as nothing more than personal, group, cultural preferences in a subjective/relative moral framework.
On the other end of the spectrum, as you alluded to, objective virtues depend on objective moral laws and duties. If there are no objective moral laws and duties, there cannot be objective virtues. One may set up subjective moral laws and duties, and call themselves virtuous for abiding by them, but this is begging the question of what exactly is “good” and “bad” since the agent abiding by the rules of virtue is doing nothing more than following his own established laws. So, one may skin a cat for fun on account that according to him it is virtuous to skin cats. And if others do NOT skin cats, they are then not virtuous by his standard. Ultimately, if there is no fixed point that acts as a measure, you set your own standards, and within this realm, there is no point in calling anything “good” or “bad” because they are all the same – just ultimately meaningless actions different people imbue with their own virtue categories.
Moving on to your other comments, I fear that you have not really understood my earlier comment, and the difference between existence and knowledge. You’ve once again conflated epistemology and ontology. Again, whether something is true is completely independent of how we may come to know that to be the case. An example would be thus: were there craters on the dark side of the moon in 500 B.C. The answer is yes. Now, did human beings always know this? The answer is a ‘no.’ The importance in making this distinction is that in the sphere of making formal logical arguments you may not conflate these two things since it would lead to a formal logical error, as you’ve done throughout your comments. The various differences in what constitutes moral duties throughout different cultures is besides the point, since you’re simply referring to how people come to know what they are supposed to do (epistemology) mainly as a product of enculturation and socialization. Whether we’re talking about Islam, Christianity, Deism, Atheism, what have you, how people come to believe what is moral is entirely independent of whether objective moral laws exist. Additionally, we have not here spoken yet of what is objectively moral, but that there is an objective moral standard, so specific examples are not helpful, especially in light of my earlier comment about virtues as subjective preferences.
You’ve cited various standards of code. Your various allusions to different moral codes within specific cultures does nothing to dispute my position that the ontology of moral values is one that is objective, and not relative. And let me also say, that I have not really mentioned any one specific moral law or duty yet, so arguing against specific examples outside the scope of what we’ve spoken about, and making charges of moral missteps of others borders on being a red herring, since the matter in question is the ontology of moral laws and duties.
You’ve stated that different people believe in different things being moral. I agree with that. But just because different people believe different moral standards does NOT truly make them moral standards, again especially in light of my earlier distinction of moral preferences. Also, can people not be wrong about their beliefs? Certainly. Can even large groups of people be wrong about their beliefs? Certainly. Even majorities of whatever culture we’re speaking about, and even the entire human race can be wrong about its specific beliefs regarding any number of things. You yourself disagree with other positions, pointing to the Bible, pointing out that others are wrong for holding to those beliefs. But I hope by this point, that you can see that this actually works more against you than in your favor since you’re making references to some objective standards that you want others to live by or to have lived by.
Moral laws are either objective standards or subjective preferences, whether on the micro level (personal) or macro level (cultural). If the actions of others are things you disagree with, you neither have the foundational basis to argue against those positions, nor would your argument mean anything. It would be a bit like chiding a friend for eating apples simply because you yourself dislike apples. I don’t really see the point in you even mentioning the divergences from you own view. But no, you chide other people, cultures, the Bible for not being in conformity with your perception of moral laws all the while claiming that you do not believe in an objective standard for those laws. To repeal myself, if you do no believe in an objective form of moral laws and duties, you may not chide another person, culture, the entire human race for anything whatsoever they may do. It more or less proves my point that you’ve pulled objective moral laws and duties exactly as I said – “out of thin air.”
You see, you cannot escape making categorical distinction of “good” and “evil” precisely because it is impossible to live consistently without an objective moral framework that transcends mere human opinion. Either the ontology of moral values and duties transcend human opinions and are objective, or they are determined and prescribed by human beings, making them subjective, turning them into mere preferences. If they are subjective and therefore relative, you may in no way chide another person, culture, civilization, time period or any other moral conventions held by any one of these entities throughout history, let alone anything that you would perceive in a limited sense to be immoral about God. Doing so makes you a moral objectivist. This would be a moral relativist putting on the hat of a moral objectivist to argue against moral objectivism – a borrowing of the foundation to argue against the foundation.
Now, the fact that you DO have a moral compass, and perceive things to be immoral and do find it perfectly natural to judge the moral actions of others, including those actions you have misunderstood God to be supposedly undertaking, is a pretty good indication that you DO expect everyone to live with a moral landscape that permeates all of humanity and even God Himself – you’re setting a standard, an objective standard that permeates everywhere. This is very telling. It exposes the embedded foundation that you outwardly reject.
In light of the reasons I’ve laid down to this point, your later points are irrelevant, that is unless you concede that moral laws and duties must be objective. But I will provide you more answers than is necessary at this point because, as with many others who bring such charges, there are large misconceptions and misunderstandings. To that end, towards the end you said, //even if the Christian god exists and the Bible was 100% true, I wouldn’t worship him, because I consider many of the moral decisions he made to be that of a thug boss — someone with power who can implement whatever morality he chooses due to this power.//
Well, it would be hard to worship a god whom we would perceive to be “evil,” but it would be far more likely that our perception is flawed rather than the nature of the most supreme being. Your position is not logical on this level either. If moral laws are subjective, then God has His own moral laws, and since his laws are superior to those of our own in lieu of his supremacy and transcendence of merely flawed physical apparatus for discernment, His laws would be the norm, and any disagreement in that case, would make humanity incorrect in its assessment. In the event that God is incontrovertibly evident, it would be far more likely that your moral compass is broken rather than the most superior Being being flawed in our perception.
Now, entire volumes have been written in answer to this charge you’ve made as many others before you have made. I won’t belabor the points I’ve already made, but I’ll add two more. First, if the God of theism, whose characteristics include all goodness and all justice, is the only means by which we can even have objective moral laws and duties, does it make more sense that human beings, with our limited capacity to understand reality and our flawed means by which we can perceive that reality, is it more reasonable that we should judge a God who is the only means by which we can even have that reality? Or is it more likely that we have simply misunderstood or misperceived the nature of that God? Any thinking person who values reason and is also in touch with their own humility, will not delay to concede the latter, at least not until they have personally weighed the charges with diligence. Sadly, this does not happen. Most atheists do not take the time to carefully and fully weigh the matter considering both sides of the argument, making themselves nonchalant and passive perpetuators of misunderstanding instead of active thinkers who reason and discern. This is not surprising since the matter sits well with already well established personal beliefs to begin with – to their own peril very few question the essence of the ammunition to be used against that which they despise.
Second, and this leads from point one, I can say that most of the people who chide the God of the Bible for his actions they may perceive to be immoral, do so without a good understanding of the Bible, and the background historical context within which the historical narratives unfold. Like I said, this happens to be a big blind spot for most atheists because, well, most atheists do not really try to read the Bible, let alone study it with enough rigor to consider historical backgrounds using good exegetical tools for understanding context. In other words, the response from the other side is never honestly considered. I’ve heard of many of these charges, and many I’ve researched in great detail myself. I can say that after all is said and done, very few of those issues stand up to close reasonable scrutiny after a careful detailed review of the factors to be considered on both sides. I would urge you to personally weigh some of those answers regarding this issue in more detail. A good resource would be Dr. Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster? http://www.amazon.com/God-Moral-Monster-Making-Testament-ebook/dp/B004EPYPY4/
However, I do want to repeat once more that even if you perceive God to be what you would call “immoral” does not really make Him so in a world where there are no objective good and evil. It is not really reasonable to expect God to be acting in accordance with your personal preferences. Making such charges is conceding the counter-point. And ironically without that concession there is no foundation for the charge.
Thanks for taking more time to respond.
I started to write a longer post, but then I realized I’m just rehashing. Such as it tends to be. As such, this will be the last time I’ll post on this particular page, and you can ultimately have the last word here. I don’t know why you seem to think I’m conflating moral ontology and moral epistemology, but perhaps I am. I will specifically address each and why I don’t believe a god is necessary for either.
First the summaries.
For moral epistemology, I believe that Christianity has been essentially a non-factor for generating a “more moral” society when viewed on a 2000 year timeline. Its presence didn’t stop the atrocities that had been going on before it and while it may have eventually helped inspire people to stop, such inspirations were notably absent for more than a thousand years – which shows that if it is merely a “careful reading” that was needed, humanity as a whole failed to read the bible carefully for a long time…or, which I posit, the same text can be used to support virtually any moral position and that how you interpret it is largely a societal construct and therefore doesn’t offer any more value for determining what is morally correct than a well-written secular book written by flawed humans. All books may not be equal in this regard, I agree, but I think it is therefore possible to construct a book that has a superior moral code than the bible by merely writing such discoveries like “slaves are bad”, “everyone, and I mean everyone, gets equal rights”.
For moral ontology, I think it’s difficult to “prove” anything here. I support an evolutionary view, and note that animals have varying degrees of “socialness”, and that some of the things that allow them to function as a social unit are common with humans. The fact that such social behaviors have show up in somewhat unrelated creatures such as humans and meerkats suggests to me that there might be some more fundamental law (or rather, behaviors) that are required to construct such a social group. I go further to suggest that one of the key ingredients is empathy, which I posit is an instinct and not a cultural construct. I suggest some possible ways that a sense of self-preservation might evolve into empathy, and how various levels of empathy exist, and that a lack of empathy tends to be correlated with a lack of “socialness”.
As for things that aren’t rehashes…
I think this really is the core issue here:
//moral laws and duties become completely and absolutely relative and arbitrary//
I think this is _the_ slippery slope. While we can take many actions, not all actions have equally beneficial outcomes to society or the person doing them. And yes, we can measure the benefits of outcomes in an objective way. It isn’t especially difficult. Things that lead to destruction of life and property tend to be considered negative outcomes. You should and will find disagreements, yeah, but that has _always_ been true. How we come to decide (and/or revise) our earlier positions is part of our ongoing process. We’ve had Christianity for over 2000 years, but it’s only been in the last 200 that we’ve decided, more or less internationally, that we don’t want slaves, might want to give more rights to women, and might want to give rights to homosexual persons. In that regard, the question becomes, so for the 1800 years before that, was Christianity (and other religions) part of the problem or part of the solution? Do you think that an Arthur Khachatryan of 500 AD would support all of these causes, or do you think he would use the bible to support whatever view his society had? It would be difficult to answer (for anyone), but I think it’s extremely important to note that while there were outliers, abolitionism wasn’t a pre-1300AD movement. It doesn’t seem like knowledge and study of god’s love and mercy for 1300 years did a whole lot.
This, if you will, is my philosophy of moral epistemology. I believe that we learn about morals slowly by testing the above criteria, and revising them as we find our collective faults. I don’t believe that we do so by reading ancient texts of tribes that had extremely different and as I might say, abhorrent, moral standards. I don’t believe that God stepped in to let us know what we should do. That’s not to say everything in the bible is bad, silly, and without wisdom. Even Aesop’s fables can teach us various lessons and tidbits of wisdom — the difference is, we don’t use such a book to justify our position on an issue by quoting sentences from it.
It’s been a slow process, but I do believe we live in a more moral world than we did, say, 2000 years ago. I know you object to the idea of “more moral” because you think that such words are meaningless without an objective standard to compare it to. That’s fine, but please don’t tell me and others that they are unable to tell whether granting women and slaves rights is a good thing or an improvement. It’s condescending at the very least and it assumes that is absolutely no possible way that anyone could reach the same conclusion reliably. As I mentioned above, I do think there is a process and I do think it is working, and though I don’t have a crystal ball to test this, I suspect that it will continue to function in absence of a bible.
Now for moral ontology…simply put, I believe morality comes directly from our instincts. It is my belief that our deep sense of empathy and perhaps the cognition to reflect on our actions are what creates morality — and subsequently why we generally don’t refer to animals as capable of making moral decisions.
We have instincts to survival and understand (as do all creatures down to insects) that keeping our life is preferable to our death. It really is pretty much axiomatic and self-evident. I suggest that this is due to our evolution, as basically all living creatures express their concern for their own life. This isn’t a function of morality; it’s a function of survival. Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, a creature that had little to no concern for its own survival would likely not be able to survive.
I think that via the instinct of empathy, we can extend that idea of self-preservation to others, is what makes us social animals and capable of building societies. This extension of empathy I believe is the “foundation of morality” that we see permeating the human experience, not some moral code written on to our hearts by God. (As a two-bit corollary, I believe it is why dehumanizing someone makes it so easy to then do ghastly things to them – because once they aren’t human, we need not extend due empathy. It’s also probably why we all aren’t vegetarians — we don’t extend that deep empathy to animals; we kill and eat them.)
Is empathy an instinct? I believe there is sufficient evidence for the case. People laugh (or at least smile) when others laugh (hence why laugh tracks are so successful), people wince when they see pain dealt to others, people tear up when they see others crying. You can be absolutely oblivious to all circumstances that create laughs, pain, or crying, but merely _seeing_ them causes reactions that take a lot of control to contain. There are also human facial expressions that are understood universally — they literally can be understood by anyone in any culture. This suggests that comprehension of the emotions of others in humans is NOT a social construct, but an instinctual behavior.
Where does this empathy come from? I don’t know. I can conjecture that it evolved from parentoffspring relationships, which are noted in the animal world to be fiercely protective, and later covered larger parts of family and later tribe. Snakes, for example, have essentially no concern for their offspring and do not create societies. They do not socialize, they are essentially solitary hunters. Moving forward, we see motheroffspring relationships where a mother will risk and sometimes sacrifice her life to save her offspring, violation the idea of self-preservation. This is, in my opinion, an expression of primitive empathy — a concern for the life of others. The offspring live with the mother until they can fend for themselves and then depart to be come solitary. It’s marginally social, but not what we consider “social animals”. Then we see small groups of animals who form bands and help each other hunt, sharing food and protecting the young of others, sometimes adopting the young of killed mothers. There is an understood idea that their survival depends on the cooperation of the group.
I also don’t claim to know the origins of our markedly superior intellect – I’m sure others have better hypothesis than I do, and I will defer to them. I think it’s fair to say “I don’t know” if I don’t actually know. However, and this is where we will depart, I think it’s absolutely dishonest to say that such features were designed by God without even demonstrating that a god exists.
@Patrick, thanks for the response and the cordial dialog, and again apologies for the length of time for me to reply. Your comments were long and my time too short. Halfway through my reply I decided to write an entire article for the topic, which is now turning into a book. Some of what you wrote demanded a more thorough answer than would be appropriate as a comment on this post.
My initial concern was the brevity of time elapsed before you wrote your response. I felt it was rather hurried, and based on the fact that you seemed to have overlooking many of the points I was making in my previous comment(s), I was wondering if you actually read and reflected on my points. Your repetition of what seemed to me to have already been adequately death with was puzzling. I thought I provided rather compelling points. Perhaps I’m just not communicating things clearly? I must first point out that you already conceded the validity of this particular post when you conceded that on your view objective moral laws do not exist. If there are no objective moral laws, there cannot logically be any objective virtues – precisely what I said in the post. Inasmuch as the rest of your points are concerned, they are mostly a diversion from the main point of the post, and as I feared, most are red herrings. I’m generally not inclined to chase red herrings, but for this last time, I will go ahead and respond to some of the things you said in order to hopefully give you additional answers and some food for thought.
1. The reason why it looks to me that you are conflating moral epistemology and ontology is that you’ve repeatedly made reference to different cultures and ‘how’ people come to know moral laws and duties, as you’ve done in your most recent response as well. I fully understand that your worldview commitments are forcing you to adopt a view of moral evolution(this is different from evolutionary ethics), and in that sense are arguing that the ontology of moral laws is such that they have come about by a slow change of “civilized” culture. This is a narrative that most materialists would adopt, but you continually make reference to how we come to know such relative moral laws as a means for justifying their ontology. The stories told are full of speculation and offer little in terms of persuasive reasons for their veracity. I will not go into more detail about this now since this is moving away from the main topic of the post, but I will say that biology is merely a means by which we get a description of “how” biological systems work. It is not a discipline that can tell us how we “ought” to live. It is therefore, lacking the means by which it can provide meaningful answers regarding moral laws and duties. It describes the natural world. It does not prescribe a framework of moral order. At best, it is merely suggestive of the sort of behaviors will promote the survival and reproduction of a species, and what sort will demote their survival and reproduction. There are numerous problems with this sort of “moral” framework, which I won’t go into at the moment. Suffice it to say that a biological jump from the physical to the metaphysical is a giant unwarranted blind leap of faith backed by nothing but a presupposition of materialism and a speculative story of how things “must have happened.” Digging deeper into the science literature that actually tries to present it as a sound argument, one is bound to find even more speculations to support the speculations.
What’s worse and ultimately ignored is that people do not merely live their lives as a social group, but have independent existential pursuits, which drive them. People are not merely the mechanistic result of their biology. Metaphysical aspects of the self that allow for such things as human reason are also part of human nature, which allow human beings to distance themselves and even rebel against their own biology. In other words, the mind is not merely an effect of nature and biochemistry without control over its own destiny on a personal level.
I realize that within the social sphere, the survival of a species may depends on their cooperation, but as I stated previously, (a) more often than not “immoral” behavior is more beneficial to survival, (b) mere cooperation does not provide a moral “ought,” (c) we are not merely the result of mechanistic outworking of biology, and (d) our immediate reality is our existential world, not the social sphere. If there are no objective moral laws, why “ought” I not do as I wish for my own selfish pleasure and the survival of my own progeny? I see no legitimate reason.
On this personal level, within the naturalistic (I want to be specific about naturalistic because theistic evolutionary frameworks would differ) evolutionary framework, a full blown nihilism is the most natural entailment. Many thinkers have expressed this persuasively throughout history, from the authors of the greatest novels to the most notable scientists and philosophers. Once God is out of the picture, everything becomes permissible. Nothing is out of bounds. On a personal level, which is where people typically live their lives on a daily basis, there would be no objective existential “ought.” Here’s a pretty good summation of how such relativistic theories are unlivable: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY9Z5LRkjkk
2. I will once again point out that you are utilizing a measuring stick (objective moral laws), while at the same time arguing that there are no objective moral laws. You’ve done this throughout your comments, notably in these :
//a book that has a superior moral code than the bible// – theres no basis for “superior moral code” within a system of relative moral laws. There is what you might call “my moral preferences,” but your “moral preferences” are yours and mine is mine. I would thank you for merely giving me your opinion, but they are just that – your opinion
//I believe that Christianity has been essentially a non-factor for generating a “more moral” society// – putting words in quotes does not alleviate you from having to explain the essential nature of the words. When you say “more moral” you are again making categorical assessments on an objective level.
//I don’t believe that we do so by reading ancient texts of tribes that had extremely different and as I might say, abhorrent, moral standards.// – there’s no such thing as “abhorrent moral standards” within moral relativism, since everything is relative.
//everyone, and I mean everyone, gets equal rights// equal rights would mean that humans have intrinsic human worth and intrinsic human rights, both of which cannot be arrived at by any stretch of the imagination within the naturalistic framework. The chief aim in that framework is survival and reproduction, and survival is often achieved at the expense of other creatures, of your own and other species. I realize that this is an essential aspect of the civil law of the US, but it has no basis in natural law as an essential component of nature. Insistence that people should have such rights as an inherent part of their being a priori, assumes an objective moral framework that transcends the system (nature).
//It’s been a slow process, but I do believe we live in a more moral world than we did, say, 2000 years ago.// – there’s no such thing “more moral” within moral relativism.
3. In your section on moral epistemology, I would have to say that you’re not really making logical connections. You said,
//For moral epistemology, I believe that Christianity has been essentially a non-factor for generating a “more moral” society when viewed on a 2000 year timeline. Its presence didn’t stop the atrocities that had been going on before it and while it may have eventually helped inspire people to stop, such inspirations were notably absent for more than a thousand years – which shows that if it is merely a “careful reading” that was needed, humanity as a whole failed to read the bible carefully for a long time…or, which I posit, the same text can be used to support virtually any moral position and that how you interpret it is largely a societal construct an d therefore doesn’t offer any more value for determining what is morally correct than a well-written secular book written by flawed humans. All books may not be equal in this regard, I agree, but I think it is therefore possible to construct a book that has a superior moral code than the bible by merely writing such discoveries like “slaves are bad”, “everyone, and I mean everyone, gets equal rights”.//
This section is completely beside the point. But I did want to address the numerous factual and logical errors you’ve made.
3a. You seem to be completely unaware of the multitudes of beneficial contributions Christianity has made to the world throughout history. You may want to check out a book titled, “How Christianity Changed the World” (http://www.amazon.com/Christianity-Changed-World-Alvin-Schmidt/dp/0310264499/ref=tmm_pap_title_0)
3b. You said, //[Christianity’s] presence didn’t stop the atrocities that had been going on before it//.
This is a strange statement. It makes me wonder whether you even understand Christianity, or know any of its long history. True Christianity as an enterprise, which ALWAYS, I repeat ALWAYS, follows the teachings of Christ as the primary principles of behavior, and contrary to what you may have been exposed to, it *HAS* made numerous contributions to society. See the aforementioned book reference. But in brief, the first hospitals were established by Christians, the first universities were given rise by Christians, even the establishment of the formal scientific enterprise has had significant contributions made by Christianity. There are actually philosophically rich reasons why science as a formal discipline was realized within the dominant cultural milieu of Christianity, and nowhere else.
Secondly, you seem to think that the mere existence of Christianity as a belief system *should* have had and continue to have power enough to stop atrocities, and injustices, and what’s odd is that you expect that Christianity should have done this consistently with *your own* preferential moral code. That is a huge leap and also a non-sequitur. Christianity as a belief system has power, yes. But a belief system that has power does not logically entail that the world will now improve simply by the existence of that power, whether or not Christians live consistently with their faith or not. The moral philosophy of Christianity is available to everyone. This does not mean that everyone will immediately embrace the system and live consistently with the teachings of Christ. In fact, every pretense is made by individuals to NOT conform to those truths. That is the true nature of man.
3c. You said, //[Bible] may have eventually helped inspire people to stop, such inspirations were notably absent for more than a thousand years – which shows that if it is merely a “careful reading” that was needed…//
This is another non-sequitur as a careful reading of ANY book does not necessarily entail the reader abiding by what is contained therein. Merely reading the Bible does not turn one into a Christian, just as merely reading the constitution carefully does not entail that one becomes an astute keeper of the civil or legal code. The transformative power of Christianity is not in the mere reading of the Bible. It is in what we understand the Bible to be, and our response to it. The transformative power of Christianity is in God’s power to give us a new heart, and this happens when people acknowledge Christ as God, humble themselves to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. This regeneration happens to people of all walks of life, from world class soccer stars (http://www.iamsecond.com/seconds/kaka-2/) to hard core rock stars who’ve battled addictions of all kinds (http://www.iamsecond.com/seconds/brian-welch/).
Variety of arguments may bounce uselessly off a person who does not want God, but let Him once “come in,” and all argument will be tenfold useless to convince the same person that there is no God.
3d. You said, //the same [biblical] text can be used to support virtually any moral position and that how you interpret it is largely a societal construct an d therefore doesn’t offer any more value for determining what is morally correct than a well-written secular book written by flawed humans.//
That’s actually not true. This sort of post-modern rehashing of literature is ultimately self-refuting. Literature is ultimately interpreted by using various considerations including, but not limited to its genre, regional setting, cultural setting, historical setting, narrative, context, personality of its author, etc. The writer is the one who determines the true meaning of the literature as he’s writing, and by means of various tools, readers can ascertain the true nature and meaning of what the author intended to communicate. *How* you interpret a text is NOT //largely a social construct// as you seem to think. Sure, understanding the specific culture of the time and place of the specific writing in question allows for better interpretation, and there is an accurate interpretation and erroneous ones, with quite a few in between. But the correct interpretation is well within reach of even the most ignorant of people. So, just because numerous people through the ages have not interpreted the Bible correctly, (a) does NOT make the interpretation a relative matter of preference and, (b) does NOT make it merely a cultural phenomenon devoid of the original intent of the writer, and (c) does NOT infringe on the fact that many people have also interpreted the Bible correctly. There is a whole area of study, called hermeneutics, that deals with correct interpretation of the biblical text.
Yes, humans are flawed, but the Bible, though penned by humans, was ultimately authored by the inspiration of God. This does not necessarily mean that it is infallible (Christians do have differing view on this) because the writers themselves and scribes who copied the manuscripts were fallible, but it does make the Bible more accurate than any other book penned by man. The problem is that most unbelievers never make an honest attempt to read it and understand it properly. Instead of an host assessment of its content with an open mind, which can be had only through one’s honesty and humility, most unbelievers are content to ridicule a superficial caricature of the Bible setting up a straw man in order to easily knock it down, in order to carry out self-serving psychological pursuits of cognitive dissonance to remain in the comfort of their current state of unbelief. I know this well. I used to do it too.
3e. You said, //everyone, and I mean everyone, gets equal rights//
Equal rights would mean that humans have intrinsic human worth and intrinsic human rights, both of which cannot be arrived at by any stretch of the imagination within the naturalistic framework. I realize that this is an essential aspect of the civil law of the US, but it has no basis in natural law as an essential component of nature. Insistence that people should have such rights as an inherent part of their being, assumes an objective moral framework, which contradicts your current position…
4. In your section on moral ontology, most of what you wrote is mere speculation. You said,
//For moral ontology, I think it’s difficult to “prove” anything here. I support an evolutionary view, and note that animals have varying degrees of “socialness”, and that some of the things that allow them to function as a social unit are common with humans. The fact that such social behaviors have show up in somewhat unrelated creatures such as humans and meerkats suggests to me that there might be some more fundamental law (or rather, behaviors) that are required to construct such a social group. I go further to suggest that one of the key ingredients is empathy, which I posit is an instinct and not a cultural construct. I suggest some possible ways that a sense of self-preservation might evolve into empathy, and how various levels of empathy exist, and that a lack of empathy tends to be correlated with a lack of “socialness”.//
If one considers proof to be 100% certainty, then nothing can really be proven. As I’ve stated previously, “socialness” does not lead to prescriptive morality. Second, various types of animals are “anti-social,” some eat their own progeny, many work against “social” constructs. But these actions do not dictate a moral “ought” and the animals survive just fine. You may speculate about any number of ways in which this “societal” cooperation seems to be prevalent in varying degrees throughout various animal kinds. That is not really morality as a prescriptive *ought*, but simply a description of behavior – a natural mechanistic utility for survival and reproduction and nothing more.
On your view animals are informed of their moral conduct through no other means than their biochemistry – in other words, they are hardwired by their genetics. Humans beings are distinct for many reasons, but most importantly because of reason and rationality, which in many instances trounces many biological dispositions. So, the rest of the animal kingdom may act through means of its biological disposition, but human beings have access to the metaphysical tools by which greater assessments are possible. At best you may argue that there are superficial similarities to this end, but to posit that the difference between the moral behavior of human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom to be only a matter of degree is quite simplistic and does not take into consideration this qualitative difference.
5. You said, //In that regard, the question becomes, so for the 1800 years before that, was Christianity (and other religions) part of the problem or part of the solution? Do you think that an Arthur Khachatryan of 500 AD would support all of these causes, or do you think he would use the bible to support whatever view his society had?//
You claim that it’s only been in the past 200 years that our so-called “moral improvements” have taken place, and you also refer to various specific “moral improvements” as a matter of fact. Within your moral framework, this is merely your opinion. I don’t see how this claim can be made in light of the difficulties:
5a. Measurement of outcomes of my actions does NOT give me a moral “ought” for my actions. It usually actually has quite the opposite effect – it helps amoralists and criminals become smarter about the wrongs they commit so as not to get caught. Moral outcomes have no bearing on moral intentions, and intentions are precursors to actions.
5b. Your claim that the past 200 years have seen the most moral improvement is your own subjective measurement, with which I would wholeheartedly disagree. The facts say otherwise. The 20th century has been one of the bloodiest ones in history. There are more slaves today than there were 200 years ago. There are heinous acts being committed today that no one would even dream of 200 years ago. I would argue that there has been a moral degeneration instead. Now, since I believe in objective moral standards, I’m well within my right to say such a thing. You, on the other hand, cannot. This goes back yet again to the limits of a relativistic moral framework within which moral categories of “good” and “bad” are meaningless terms.
5c. It’s impossible for me to say what an Arthur of 500AD would do, but since I already broke away from my misperceptions about the nature of reality in this generation, I don’t see why I would not pursue truth beyond my inner scope of upbringing in that generation. And honestly, the question is beside the point. This is yet another conflation of moral epistemology and ontology. Moral laws exist and are fixed whether one or all people on earth abide by them or not. They are discovered, not determined by people. They are not predicated on the cultural mores of various generations and geography. Instead, people of various ages either conform to those objective standards or they do not. And this decision does not dictate the ontology of moral laws.
6. You write, //This, if you will, is my philosophy of moral epistemology. I believe that we learn about morals slowly by testing the above criteria, and revising them as we find our collective faults. I don’t believe that we do so by reading ancient texts of tribes that had extremely different and as I might say, abhorrent, moral standards. I don’t believe that God stepped in to let us know what we should do. That’s not to say everything in the bible is bad, silly, and without wisdom. Even Aesop’s fables can teach us various lessons and tidbits of wisdom — the difference is, we don’t use such a book to justify our position on an issue by quoting sentences from it.//
6a. Well, sure, we can learn correct moral behavior from various sources. That is not the nature of our disagreement. Surely it is possible for one objective common core of moral truths to be taught through any number of varying sources and in various ways. That is nowhere to be found in any of my claims. The issue here is not how those teachings are disseminated but rather whether they are objective or simply a matter of subjective preference. If moral teaching are supposed to aid us in our pursuit of a “moral society”, then there must exist an objective set, which is something you’ve rejected.
6b. You said, //Even Aesop’s fables can teach us various lessons and tidbits of wisdom — the difference is, we don’t use such a book to justify our position on an issue by quoting sentences from it.// To equate Aesop’s fables with the Bible is quite puzzling to me. For starters, one is explicitly called “fables” while the other is, with all due respect to skeptics, the inspired word of God. At the very least, skeptics need to realize that that is what the claim is. The Bible’s not merely a book of “thou shalt not…” The Bible is a dynamic set of writings of various genres including poetry, historical narrative, epistles, apocalyptic, etc. It would be far wiser for unbelievers to honestly appraise the contents of the Bible and to put it to the test (as I did), but unfortunately this rarely happens. Either the Bible is the Word of God or it is not. If it is not, then certainly it is simply an amusing historical fiction. But if the Bible is indeed the word of God, then its contents are of utmost importance, and what it has to say about how we are to live our lives is of greater importance than Aesop’s fables or any other book for that matter.
7. You said, //It’s been a slow process, but I do believe we live in a more moral world than we did, say, 2000 years ago. I know you object to the idea of “more moral” because you think that such words are meaningless without an objective standard to compare it to. That’s fine, but please don ‘t tell me and others that they are unable to tell whether granting women and slaves rights is a good thing or an improvement. It’s condescending at the very least and it assumes that is absolutely no possible way that anyone could reach the same conclusion reliably. As I mentioned above, I do think there is a process and I do think it is working, and though I don’t have a crystal ball to test this, I suspect that it will continue to function in absence of a bible.//
I disagree that we live in a “more moral” society (see above), and I do object to your usage of the term, because again, as I’ve stated before, you cannot have a “more moral” society when morality is relative. This is not just what “I think” but it is a restriction imposed by the rules of logic. Perhaps personal whims have the ability to overrule reason?
7a. You said, //but please don’t tell me and others that they are unable to tell whether granting women and slaves rights is a good thing or an improvement.//
Once again, you are conflating moral epistemology with moral ontology. Being “unable to tell” is a matter of epistemology, not ontology. Whether or not women *have* objective rights is a matter of moral ontology, whether or not we are “able to tell” or “know” is a matter of moral epistemology. However, if one embraces a philosophy of moral relativism, one may NOT consider their moral intuitions to be a matter of an objective standard, but personal preferences.
7b. You said, //It’s condescending at the very least and it assumes that is absolutely no possible way that anyone could reach the same conclusion reliably.//
I would apologize for it if I had done so, but I never claimed you or anyone else *could not know* (epistemology) objective moral laws and duties. My argument is that *there are no* objective moral laws or duties (ontology) within moral relativism, and you already conceded that point in your previous comment(s). Perhaps you found it to be condescending because you’re again conflating ontology with epistemology?
8. Regarding the notion of an evolutionary basis for moral ontology, it’s not the first time I’ve seen it. I came across it before I became a Christian. It wasn’t convincing prior to that, and has been less so since. Conjecture is not persuasive, and were someone to concoct a wildly imaginative story to try to prove some other unrelated thing regarding theism in the like manner, you should be equally unimpressed and unconvinced that it is true. Construction of a fairly elaborate story with wildly speculative connections to bridge the holes, and conveniently avoiding the pitfalls, is not a particularly good way of dealing with this. Though I agree with *some* of the facts you’ve presented, as a means to explain the entirety of the moral landscape, I don’t think it succeeds.
8a. First, I need to point out that I could not really make out a argument or case being made for the position. I saw a few speculative stories, but no real case. I don’t think this is an even-handed way to look at the issue. The way naturalists typically argue for this in particular, and many other things alike, is by (1) first assuming that naturalism is true and *must* be *the only* means to explain *all of reality*, (2) and then drawing elaborate stories to try explain reality, and (3) later point to the speculations of stories to point out that naturalism is true. This is circular, it’s begging the question. The ultimate point is whether naturalism is true or not, and to infer it a priori is to rig the results. Conversely, when your starting position is a clean slate, at least a semi-transcendant escape from your preconceptions, you’re bound to have a more even-handed approach to resolving various issues, often in a far more reasonable manner. However, if one’s wrong, and one’s starting position precludes various truths, sooner or later one will bump into reality, and would need to draw up wildly imaginative speculations in order to justify their position(s).
See, if 1 is false, the conclusions you may draw from 2 may be useful in helping us determine how nature works, but it is unhelpful to apply the mechanisms to answer metaphysical questions about reality, as a whole they will ALWAYS fail to present us with a full picture of reality, because the speculations are restricted to the boundaries of the worldview a priori. Thus, wherever convenient to the framework, the story unfolds as expected by the framework, and whenever the framework is under scrutiny or potentially at risk, the story molds to fit the framework. It’s a circular system of self-reference that cannot fail, because there are roadblocks to anything outside, and this takes place well before examination by the presumption of the worldview of naturalism. One may be obliged to argue from his specific vantage point, but when alternatives are presented, it is incumbent on an honest examiner to take an even-handed look at any competing models, at least when one’s primary motivation is truth, and not merely proving oneself to be right at all costs.
What you call “morality” is a degenerated term meaning actions that which aid in survival and reproduction. There is no greater meaning beyond that on naturalism. No action is truly *good* or *bad,* but rather either *helpful*, benign or *harmful* to this end of survival and reproduction. The evolutionary explanation is inadequate to explain the existence (ontology) of objective moral laws and duties, and this is one of the main reason why most naturalists recede into the weak and ultimately indefensible position of moral relativism.
8b. It is not at all obvious to me that “morality” is truly beneficial for survival, at least not the kind of sweeping generalization that is typically made. The overwhelming majority of the animal kingdom does not have morality, and this majority has and continues to survive just fine. Morality is not a logical necessity for survival of living things. In fact, more often than not, “immorality” is what is far more beneficial for survival. This is partly why loopholes in civil law are often taken advantage of by people who, by all accounts of merely their behavior, are simply trying to survive. However, the overwhelming majority of people, see this gaming of the system to be something objectively morally wrong, even though more often than not, they are not wrong as a matter of civil law. This outrage has no place within moral relativism.
8c. One has to address the full breadth of morality, not just altruism, as Darwinists usually do. Most fantastic speculations that are given as explanations do not have support from empirical data aside from a few factoids from miro-evolution. It is not at all compelling, especially in light of the fact that the same exact set of data can have multiple different explanations, often much better ones than the one offered by naturalistic evolution.
8d. Morality is not an enterprise that can be explained merely by the observation of behaviors. There is far more to it. The morality that needs to be explained goes far beyond behaviors. Here are a couple of popular examples others have made: a man walks into a garage, picks up a hose, throws it in his car, and drives off. Was the man’s behavior immoral? Any thinking person would ask a few questions before answering. For example, was that his house? If not, did he have permission to take the hose? Whether or not the behavior was immoral depends on a variety of factors that are not part of the specific observed set of behaviors themselves. You can’t know whether his actions were moral or immoral merely from observing the behavior itself. And those are factors that will not be determined by any material, empirical assessment of the actions and behaviors.
Now, let’s look at the next example – two girls each bake a cake for their lonely elderly grandfather. Are their actions moral, benign or immoral? Well, on the surface, based purely on their behavior, you’d possibly assume that they were both doing it out of respect and love. But what if we now add some background information that was not readily available to our examination of their behaviors alone. Suppose the first did it out of love, but the second had ulterior motives – she baked the cake to gain the favor of her grandfather for the inheritance. Now, has the moral outcomes of the actions changed? Most definitely. Baking a cake simply out of love is morally superior to baking a cake out of greed. So, we have two exact behaviors, which differ in their moral outcomes. You see, the difference here is not necessarily the behavior, but the intention, and intention precedes whatever implications would follow from the said behaviors. This intention is not going to be captured by any evolutionary extrapolation. There are immaterial elements to the equation that are wholly outside the scope of any physical behavior.
8e. Preclusion of moral objectivism, leaves us with moral relativism. Moral relativism branches off into ethical subjectivism (personal) and ethical conventionalism (cultural). On the granular level of subjectivism, moral laws and duties are determined (not known, there is a big difference) by individuals. Within this framework all moral laws are a matter of personal preference or opinion. No one person may object to another’s behavior. And what exactly would that objection be anyway under naturalism? ‘Forgive me sir, but you are wrong for having such opinions to promote your survival and reproduction?’ Ethical subjectivism fails dreadfully, not merely because it is ultimately unlivable, but because the objection is made against the survival and reproduction of another of the same species, and it is a cognitive selection of behavior that one prefers over others. Who is to say that the real survival advantage comes not through person B’s change of behavior, but person A’s? But if mere opinion dictates proper behavior, and no one opinion has any objective basis, then any one person’s opinions of proper behavior are impossible to be proven truly morally wrong. They may in fact be disadvantageous to survival and reproduction, but since opinion is not necessarily based on such facts, the ontology of moral laws degenerates into an arbitrary personal choice, a whim as it were.
On ethical conventionalism, moral laws and duties are determined (again, not merely known; there’s a big difference) by cultures. Different cultures have different moral systems. Though some moral laws and duties are shared, there is a vast spectrum of moral laws and duties that differ, often times substantially, from one culture to another. What is morally abhorrent within one culture is not only morally permissible in another, but even morally mandated in the third. As a system based on a larger scale of opinion, conventionalism differs merely in its breadth. At its core, ethical conventionalism is not much different from ethical subjectivism. There’s a distinction, yet, but this distinction comes not with the greatest difference. Just as individual opinions permeate and reign within the self, so do they within specific cultures on a larger scale. Though specific cultures may be in a better position to ascertain and promote behaviors most likely beneficial to SR, nothing of necessity dictates that will be the case. Within ethical conventionalism moral laws and duties may be drastically different from specific culture to the next. Nothing forbids entire cultures from generating moral laws that would be self-serving. Nothing forbids the select group of leading individuals within a specific culture from taking their views of what exactly is best for culture and imposing a dictatorship on the culture simply because, whether or not based on fact, they have the opinion that that framework would best promote SR for the culture as a whole.
Yet another point of tension that comes from ethical conventionalism (remember each culture’s moral sphere is independent of others) whereby the behaviors within one specific culture and the total sum of actions of that culture itself, being impossible to be judged or criticized by any other. Thus, if Hitler was able to convince his Nazi Germany (which he almost did) that the Jews were unfit and subhuman, extermination of the Jews would have been completely moral within Nazi Germany, and no other nation or any collection of nations, would have the reasonable justification to criticize those actions. This is diametrically opposed to moral objectivism, within which, an objective standard is set on ALL of humanity, and it makes us able to say that Hitler was acting immorally, even if Hitler was able to brainwash everyone into believing he was right, he would still be morally in the wrong, and this can be claimed if, and ONLY if, one believes in objective moral laws and duties.
To make matters worse with this example, one of the main catalyst’s behind Hitler’s actions was evolutionary genetics. Remember, he was in pursuit to create the “pure” white race, which he saw as the dominant race that was ultimately in the best of positions for survival and reproduction. This clearly demonstrates that what some people or cultures believe to be the best means of “survival and reproduction,” and hence determined to be moral within one person or culture This is as stark a contrast I can possibly draw. I don’t really know where to go from here. If moral relativism still doesn’t strike you as an extremely difficult position to defend, I’m inclined to think you’re doing so more because of your dogged commitment to naturalism.
Apologies for breaking up my comments. It was the only way I could get it all in.
I would like to paint a picture to demonstrate the distinction between moral objectivism and moral relativism, which I hope will clarify that which, based on your continued persistence in light of my answers, I have apparently not yet fully clarified. The framework of objective moral laws is like a map with a destination, which represents moral laws and duties. People have the map and know the destination. The destination is objective. Within moral relativism, people have a map, but do NOT have a destination. Without this objective destination each one simply drives around aimlessly. Now, some may collectively gather together and claim that *that* is the destination, but no one is truly obliged to take that seriously. It is a place like any other, and there is nothing special about it. Therefore, others may gather in another group, and call that place the destination, but this also does NOT truly make it the destination. In other words, if the destination is not marked by the one who makes the map (i.e. God), no truly objective destination can possibly exist. It’s just a set of preferences, from sample sizes as small as individuals to specific cultures. Notice how I’ve not even made any specific claim to any one specific belief system. All I’ve done is shown that a theistic God of some sort is needed for objective moral laws and duties to exist (ontology). I point this out because, even though I corrected your many misconceptions and errors about Christianity, your detour through the perceived “ills” of Christianity was wholly unwarranted. For the specific reasons why Christianity is the only true belief system with explanatory power and scope of reality, we’d have to consider other arguments, which are not really relevant for this specific post.
I tend to agree with you that, though socialization may be largely responsible for us learning moral laws and duties, that these are to a large extent hardwired in us. But I would disagree that this hardwiring is completely biological or social in its full essence. Our conscience is a metaphysical guide (the map with the destination if you will) to the objectively good moral ends. The problem is that our will is often so strong that we simply do not want to go where the map is pointing, and sometimes we so much want to do things our way, that we end up tearing up the map altogether, in other words, rebelling against our conscience.
The differences between our views is that the evolutionary hypotheses leaves no room for these moral judgements to be based on anything outside the gene, and thus lacks the ability for true moral adjudication. Theism, on the other hand, has a far more superior tool set since there is open access to metaphysical realities well outside the bounds of strict materialism. This provides theism with a far more superior explanatory scope and explanatory power. For naturalists the only way to escape this conundrum is by opening causal closure of physical objects, and making available the causal power of the mind. But this presents naturalists with even more difficulties, namely having to reconcile the metaphysical self and will with the physical body. This happens to be an even larger difficulty, but I digress.
Any moral outrage against what one may perceive to be “evil” demonstrates in very clear terms, that although one may outwardly deny objective moral laws and duties, one cannot help but inwardly embrace them. The existence of objective evil is so obvious that people can’t in good conscience actually deny it. Even when they say they deny it, they come back to it without thinking of their previous denial, and their naturalistic a priori commitments. To everyone in the world, including atheists, it’s fairly obvious there’s evil in the world. This is why it is consistently brought up. You can’t have objective evil without objective morality. In other words, the ontological reality of objective moral laws is secured and verified based solely by the objection to evil.
Lastly, evolutionary theory of morality is itself dependent on the truth of materialistic evolution without any influence from outside the strictly physical mechanisms at work within the system. I want to be specific about this because theistic evolution would not qualify. In other words, naturalistic evolution is specifically the theory that is unable to adequately deal with morality. And, of course I’d be remised if I didn’t mention that evolution is itself under scrutiny as the evolutionary hypotheses are under question from increasing numbers of scholars, many of whom are atheists, such as Thomas Nagel. In the mainstream evolutionary theorists have increasingly become hostile as they attempt to guard the dogmas of evolution (skeptic Michael Ruse has made this observation as well), making evolution more like a secular religion than science, and evolutionists are becoming increasingly more like priests who are more interested in disseminating evolution at all cost, even using known fallacious arguments, than actually making logically sound arguments as the basis of the theories they espouse. More can be said, but I’ve said more than enough.
I’ve given you every benefit of the doubt, and presented a lengthy point-by-point answers to your various on-topic and off-topic objections. However, I can’t help but detect a tone of emotional upheaval. You seem to be a bright guy. It is my hope and prayer that you ponder some of what I’ve said and please try to tame your emotional dispositions against Christianity. It will taint your view and move you away from reason, ultimately taking you further away from the truth. God bless! (His grace is sufficient – sometimes He blesses us even during our rebellion) 🙂
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