Why Russell was Wrong IV: The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Relative

moralContinuing on in my discussion of Bertrand Russell’s speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, we now get to an argument from morality. This is of particular interest in considering Russell as the intellectual grandfather of the New Atheists, in that it is a group of such strong moral pretensions.

As to the issue of morality, theists have often said that, while belief in God is not required to behave morally, the existence of God is required to explain how any objective morality could exist.

Russell’s response is, essentially, a version of what is typically called the Euthyphro Dilemma:

[B]ecause even supposing that there were [objective morality], you are then faced with the question “Why did God issue just those laws and not others?” If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others — the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it — if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary.

So, is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because its good? Proponents of this argument would say that this shows that either God’s morality is arbitrary or God is irrelevant to what is moral. This seems a very good argument, so long as one does not consider it too closely.

I, of course, intend to do just that:

Monotheists have never maintained that God selects moral law the way a shopper selects a box of cereal in a grocery store. The first option can easily be set aside.

The second option can likewise be set aside, at least unless the atheist can give some argument in its favor (which Russell has not). Theists have no more maintained that there is some ethical standard, somehow existing above God, than that God arbitrarily decides on morality.

In fact, I have no idea where Russell gets this idea that most orthodox theologians claim that God’s morality is based in creating the best possible world. There is simply no standard of “best” until we already have a basis of moral law. Theologians, ancient and modern, understood this point–which is why none of them, so far as I can tell, ever took this position.

Rather, what Christian theism has always claimed is that the moral law flows from God’s nature. It is neither a whim nor something external to him, but God himself that is the standard of goodness. To ask whether something is good because God wills it or God wills something because it is good is completely wrong-headed. God wills the good because he is goodness itself.

In other circumstances, we understand this point. No one would ever ask if you look like your reflection because you had altered it to look like you (arbitrary) or because you had plastic surgery to look like it (you are subject to the reflection). Here, it is perfectly obvious that you look like your reflection because it is an image of your physical nature. Likewise, morality is a reflection of God’s ethical nature.

This also answers the question as to why God didn’t will some completely different set of morals. Any “God” who can will any set of morals has no set moral nature and, therefore, is not the God Christians actually believe in.

It is also very significant that proponents of this dilemma so rarely offer a foundation for morality of their own. On the contrary, I get a lot of claims of moral relativism, or simply refusals to take a position on morality, from those who claim to be morally indignant at God. This, of course, begs the question “why should those of us who don’t accept your relativistic (or unnamed), anti-theistic morals be concerned?”.

This is why Russell (like the New Atheists) needs to do more than criticize theistic moral systems; he needs (and they need) to present and defend a system as superior to theistic morality–that we might see if it is immune to the criticisms leveled here.

Russell closes the point with this:

The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.

Of course, I don’t think he’s shown anything like a definite fallacy in the traditional arguments. Really, this description reminds me of nothing so much as the New Atheists themselves. In this case, actual arguments have very quickly given way to political activism.

After all the bombastic claims of intellectual superiority, the scorn, the ridicule, and, yes, the blatant moral posturing, it’s become clear that the group is far more interested in which slogan is persuasive in a freshman dorm room than what is logically defensible.

In the form of the New Atheists, a devoutly secular form of Pharisee has come to roost in our culture. And I feel that Russell shares part of the blame for this.


12 responses to “Why Russell was Wrong IV: The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Relative

  • thetruthfulheretic

    “It is neither a whim nor something external to him, but God himself that is the standard of goodness. […] morality is a reflection of God’s ethical nature.”

    So, if God is indeed a sadistic bastard who kills innocent children for no just reason, being a sadistic bastard who kills innocent children for no good reason is “good”? Is it not after all the reflection of his so called “ethical nature” and a standard of goodness?

    “This is why Russell (like the New Atheists) needs to do more than criticize theistic moral systems; they need to present a system they feel is superior–that we might see if their system is immune to the criticisms they make of others.”

    No, no such thing is needed under the assumption that morality is not subjective. Meaning the Religious argument in effect defeats itself.

  • Debilis

    You seem to have misunderstood the argument. God cannot, by definition be such a person as you describe. That’s rather like asking “If God were a finite person with limited power, and no knowledge of anything, then the world would have been created by a powerless incompetent person?”. We simply aren’t talking about God anymore when we ask these questions.

    It is needed whether one claims that morality is objective or subjective. In either case, anyone weighing in on the discussion needs to support his or her position.

    Specifically, are you claiming that because you reject moral subjectivity (as I do), you needn’t offer a position? How do we know your moral system stands up to the kinds of criticisms you’ve made here?

  • thetruthfulheretic

    No sir (or Ma’am), that’s the power of the dilemma. It can never go away. What your defence did was to make morality arbitrary to God’s nature rather that the original face of the dilemma (God’s choice). That’s why my question is not meaningless, nor it is irrelevant. It’s more likely rhetorical.

    Russel’s argument also differs a little. He is asking for God’s reasons for his moral orders. This is what I usually do when I am talking to theists. “Why” is important, since without it it would be very hard, if not impossible, to step into the realm of morality without fallacy. If you do know why, then whats the reason for God. If you don’t know why, then why should I (or anyone else)listen to “your” God?

    I was suggesting one does not need to offer a position in a case which the argument is inconsistent. And the dilemma shows it: No morality can come from authority, period.

  • Debilis

    The euthyphro doesn’t have super-powers; it is simply a false dilemma. The second horn assumes that the standard of morality is separate from God’s nature. I’ve heard no argument explaining why this must be.

    I agree that the “why” questions are important, however. In this case, the answer is that goodness is in God’s nature.

    One more problem with the euthyphro is that it can be just as easily applied to any non-theistic system of morality that you want others to accept. This is one reason why I asked for a competing system. If the atheist can’t provide anything that gets around the euthyphro, then the best she can hope for is a stalemate.

  • thetruthfulheretic

    I think you are ignoring what I said. It’s not a false dilemma because it comes back, stronger I may say: Is whatever God is, good is? Or. is it so that God is good because it has all the properties of goodness? In fact, in some sense the dilemma does have superpowers. After all, it defeats the divinity of moral authority.

    If one, such as yourself here, takes the first horn, next step was to ask what would happen “if” God was to be a psychopathic murderer? Would that be good simply because God was so? I doubt you believe that. And if not, you can only claim that being good is simply something that (your) God is, but is separate from it. (Mind you there is no way out of this that was not possible for the original face of the problem).


    No, the reason for an action to be right or wrong needs clarifying. The claim “Murder is wrong” needs justification. If the reason is clear, then to provoke God is irrelevant, if it is not clear, then it is not clear. But how one is expected to blindly follow unclear things?

    It is not so that the dilemma can be applied to “any” other “system” of morality as you claim. It only applies to authoritative moral “systems” (Fascistic, Theistic, etc). But my point still stands: Even if it does, what about it? The dilemma stands, and needs to be answered.

  • Debilis

    Aren’t the two options in the first paragraph the same thing? If God and goodness are synonymous, the one can answer “yes” to both of those questions. That is neither arbitrary nor external to God–in which case, the argument doesn’t speak against God so much as asks for clarification.

    God, by definition, cannot be a psychopathic murderer. Any being that is a psychopath is simply not God. Being good in nature is a prerequisite to being “God”. As such, there can no more be a psychopathic God than a God who knows nothing, cannot do miracles, or has no ability to understand prayers. We simply aren’t talking about God anymore once we throw out the idea of a psychopath.

    But, and this is the most important part of all of this. We’ve yet to see any reason at all why only “authoritative” moral systems are affected by this objection. We need to name an approach to ethics that is immune to the euthyphro–the fact that no one seems to be able to do this is the single most obvious reason why it doesn’t support atheism.

  • thetruthfulheretic

    No, they are not the same. As I mentioned earlier this defence is not right, as you are simply taking the first horn of the dilemma, something which you could do from the start, without even provoking claims about God’s nature (the divine command). It is a weak position since we can think of a thousand good reasons why “Murder is wrong” is a right claim to make, and no authoritative nature or choice can make it right. It is other words you think God cannot make that claim to be good, even if it was part of his nature.

    This last paragraph as I mentioned does not concern me, since it is irrelevant. As I said I do not care if all moral theories fall into the dilemma, the dilemma needs answering.

    [Moral theories do not fall for the dilemma. They do not claim make the right thing by commanding it, nor claim it to be part of some other thing’s nature, they rather derive right and wrong from specific principles (Utilitarianism) or by specific argument paths (Rawl’s veil of ignorance).]

    • Debilis

      You need to show that these two options cannot apply to the same thing, not merely claim that they can’t.

      But, you do need to give one of those “thousand good reasons why murder is wrong” which are not subject to the same dilemma. Mark Hamilton has already pointed out why utilitarianism is just as susceptible. As to Rowl’s Veil of Ignorance, the same question arises. The entire system is based on the idea that people would choose the most equal treatment under this system. But not all thinkers have believed that treatment should be equal.

      That being the case, why should we treat one another equally? Is it because we call things good as long as they involve equal treatment (arbitrary), or is equality good for some outside reason (then the Veil of Ignorance is not the basis of morality)?

      What if equality caused us to be “sadistic bastards” (as you put it) and kill little children. Would you still endorse it? You could say that it makes no logical sense to say that loving equality would cause one to do that, and I would agree, but that was exactly the response I gave regarding God.

      In fact, a claim doesn’t even need to be a moral system to have this dilemma “prove” that we don’t need it.

      Take friendship, for instance. An “a-freindshipist” could ask: “Do friends like each other because they are friends (then their liking is arbitrary), or are they friends because they like each other (then cut out the ‘middleman’ of friendship)?”

      Its obvious that this a-freindshipist hasn’t disproved friendship–or even that people liking one another is a sign that friendship exists. All she’s done is ignore the fact that liking one another is simply a trait of what friendship is (part of its nature). She’s conspicuously leaves that off her list of options.

      The euthyphro is no different; that is why it can be applied to any possible moral system. And, as logicians will tell you, an argument that can “disprove” any position equally is useless in deciding which theory to pick.

  • Mark Hamilton

    But Utilitarianism, for example, also falls under the dilemma. Utilitarianism (roughly and crudely explained) states that one should do what will provide the greatest happiness. But that leads to the question: why should we try to provide the greatest happiness? Should we try because happiness is part of some larger authoritative law that is above Utilitarianism? If so then we should scrap Utilitarianism and try to follow this greater law. Or should we try because we simply decided that happiness is the most important thing? If so then we could just as easily decide tomorrow that unhappiness is superior to happiness, or that we should try to provide the greatest amount of cruelty possible. So Utilitarianism also falls under the dilemma and demands an answer. As you said yourself, why should I follow moral systems that are unclear?

  • thetruthfulheretic

    @Debilis In these type of discussions there is a point that it seems I have two choices: Either be patient, trying to keep the discussion on track and point out the points I made yet again; or to just simply leave if I see there is no hope.

    I put what I wrote in a bracket, because I saw the diversion one step ahead. I made it clear before the bracket that I do not care “if” any moral theory fall into the dilemma, it still needs to be addressed. Still, you ignored.

    [I may add you misrepresent Rawls. Not in a 100 years he argues for “the most equal”, he argues for “the most just” if we may say so.]


    @Mark Hamilton, Your phrasing of this is extremely fishy. Which Utilitarianist you know who claims we simply “decided” this is the right course of action? The first horn is obvious, but irrelevant to the rest: Absolutely “any” claim comes from other claims or assumptions (your assertion of “larger authoritative law” noted, but disregarded for the reason that “authoritative” is simply asserted, which authority?). Moreover, in any case it does not logically follow that “we should scrap Utilitarianism and try to follow this greater law”.


    Note: I’ve contributed enough to disproving the point of this post. Therefore this discussion is over for the reason I stated at the start of the post.


  • Debilis

    You are free to leave the conversation, of course. But, as you’ve given me the last word:

    No, you aren’t personally required to care whether or not every moral view, including your own, is just as susceptible to the euthyphro as theistic views. But failing to engage on this point is to fail to offer anything of value. Let me explain:

    The unwillingness to offer a valid alternative, on nearly any point, is my chief frustration with most atheists I encounter on the internet. This is because, in real life, we don’t have absolute, 100% proof of much of anything. The best we can do, in most any situation, is go with the most reasonable option.

    Many atheists, however, don’t want to do that. They would rather demand that theism be judged by standards much higher than any that their own philosophies could pass.

    This is a good way to win debates, but a terrible way to get at the truth. As I’m more interested in which view is more reasonable in the real world than I am in whether or not theism can be proved in a vacuum, it matters to me that the euthyphro is, at best, a catch-all counter to whatever ethical theory one happens to dislike.

  • Why Russell was Wrong X: The All-Purpose Argument | Fide Dubitandum

    […] existence. Unfortunately, it turns out simply to be a repetition of the Euthyphro Dilemma addressed in Part IV of this […]

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