Tag Archives: Moral Argument

Why be Good?

shutterstock_38222407Following up on my earlier post on the moral argument for God’s existence, I wanted to address a tangent that I’m usually forced to let alone for the sake of sticking to the point.  That is, most of the objections to it show a marked confusion about the nature of Christian morality.

That is, if you think that threats of Hell are the basis of Biblical morals, you aren’t talking about Christianity.

One would think that the fact that Christianity is about forgiveness would be well-known enough that “You are good because you’re afraid that God will send you to Hell” would be widely recognized as a terrible argument.

But it is tragic that more people don’t know what the actual motivating force of ethical behavior is within Christianity. Far too many people, even many Christians, are missing out on the brilliance of the idea. So, what is it?

In a word, gratitude.

Christianity, though not necessarily the Christian, recognizes that reward-punishment systems tend to make us either arrogant or terrified, judgmental or guilty. This is a death-trap. Those who think they are good enough tend to be condemning to anyone not living up to their standards, and those who know we could be (and should be) better are very often plagued by self-accusation.

Terrible as it is that so many have fallen into this trap, this is a very big part of what forgiveness was meant to dispel. Forgiveness is meant to drill home to the arrogant person that he didn’t earn any right to claim to be good–and isn’t better than other people–while simultaneously showing the guilty person that she is indeed accepted.

Those who understand, and believe in, this truth will naturally begin to become a better person.

The process is simple, if difficult to live out: the one who knows she has more than she deserves is grateful, and genuinely grateful people do kind things without expecting to get something back, without hoping or demanding that she’ll be rewarded, but just because the thankfulness overflows out of her.

I, for one, believe that gratitude is the core of all human virtue. It is how we can help others without being secretly condescending or selfish. And that is the brilliance of the (actual) Biblical approach to morality.

Amoral Morality?

morality_croppedIn addition to not talking about Christianity, I’ve noticed that quite a few respondents to the arguments for God’s existence don’t actually talk about those arguments, either. Obviously, every argument is going to suffer from evasive responses to some degree, but it definitely occurs to some more than others.

My vote for the winner in this category is the moral argument for God’s existence.

Overwhelmingly, there are two basic responses to the moral argument that one is likely to encounter. (But, as a side note, I’m not sure whether the atheists who happen by would rather I made these responses sound calm and thoughtful or punchy and full of memes. I’ll  go with the typical New Atheist version I hear, but apologies in advance to the more genteel and thoughtful atheist.)

The first response usually reads a lot like this:

“I don’t need the Bible to tell me to be moral! It’s full of awful, terrible things, and only a complete sociopath would need that anyway. Are you a sociopath? I can’t believe how messed up you religious types are if you can’t be moral except because God threatens you with Hell. I do the right thing because it is right–not (like you) because I’m trying to avoid punishment.”

I don’t think there’s a book long enough to deal with all of the errors in this paragraph, but for those inclined to agree with it, let me point out the main issue.

Simply put, the argument isn’t for sociopaths. It is for people who agree that there is such a thing as moral truth. This is how reasoning to a conclusion works–we see something that is, then wonder how it could be explained. In this case, we see morality, then reason to the conclusion that God is the best explanation for it.

Of course, there are some wild claims about the Bible (and why theists are moral) here as well, but I’ll not get into that because it is beside the point. An attack on a very particular (and bad) interpretation of the Bible neither offers us a secular basis of morality, nor shows us that there isn’t such a thing.

But what of the claim that the atheist does what is right because it is right? That always struck me as a bit self-righteous, but the bigger issue is the second typical response:

“Morality is simply the result of empathy, which was put into people by evolutionary pressures. This kind of herd thinking helped our ancestors to survive, and it still helps us today. Cooperation is very powerful, and being good to others is what is best for you, in the long run.”

This is a pretty blatant contradiction of the first response, which is why I’m so often surprised to run across people who give me both responses in the same conversation–often in the same paragraph.

To say that morality is what is best for one is to deny that one does what is right because it is right. It is, specifically, to claim that one has selfish motivations for doing what is right. It is also to deny that there is any objective morality at all.

That’s fine, if one wants to do this, but this is precisely what the theist was claiming: that theism is the best explanation for objective morality. To respond with “well, as an atheist, I don’t believe in objective morality, but only that people have empathy” is to concede that point.

But, of course, the proponents of this response like to underline that empathy is “good enough”, and that nothing else needs to be explained. But I find that impossible to square with another claim these same persons make.

Namely, that we shouldn’t believe things without a rational reason to do so.

To say that we should have all kinds of moral attitudes, not because those things are really true, but simply because we feel a certain emotion (empathy), is to deny outright that one only believes based on reason and evidence.

At this point in the conversation, I’m usually treated to long, and increasingly impatient descriptions of how empathy might have arisen in the human species–as if proving that would counter anything I’ve said here.

One can reject objective morality in the name of atheism, or reject atheism in the name of morality. What one can’t rationally do, however, is claim that “are you a sociopath”, or “evolution made us empathetic” has much of anything to do with the moral argument for God’s existence.

The Evidence is Good, the Logic is Valid, but the Conclusion is Just so Unreasonable

Calvin-Hobbes-Its-Not-Denial-posterThe third moral argument Mackie discusses is interesting in that it was put forward by a man (Sidgwick) who did not himself accept it (but just thought it was interesting). Personally, I find this singularly unfortunate in that it is a good argument, and might have been better known and better defended had it been advanced by someone who actually believed in it.

The argument could be summarized as follows:

1. What one has the most reason to do is what will best secure one’s long term happiness.

2. What one has most reason to do is what morality requires

3. If there is no moral government to the universe, what will best secure one’s happiness won’t always be what morality requires.

If one accepts all three of these statements, if follows that there is a “moral government” to the universe–which would mean that materialism is false, and that theism is likely to be true. Mackie rejects this argument, I think, far too easily. He seems to accept all three premises–at least, he never challenges any of them. And he agrees that the conclusion follows from the premises. Still, he insists that the conclusion is wrong.

First, he does this by dismissing the idea that he should accept a view on the grounds that not accepting it would be to reject rationality. He accepts that this makes his view of ethics irrational, but seems strangely unbothered by this. This leaves one wondering why one couldn’t, equally, have a  view of God that he considers irrational. He never addresses this point.

And I think it is significant, in that it has become so common. Many people who are completely open about the fact that their view of morality is irrational can be found loudly mocking, ridiculing and otherwise acting scandalized toward religious believers for “believing irrational things”.

Of course, I don’t accept that belief in God is irrational, but I really can’t see why such people should have a problem even if it were.

Second, he claims that “facts should inform our beliefs, not the other way around”. But, if the argument is sound (which he seems to concede that it is), then there are moral facts which should inform his beliefs about God. He’s simply begging the question if he wants to say that morals aren’t facts.

Third, he offers some examples that, he thinks, reduces the argument to absurdity. He claims, for instance, that one could use the idea that we shouldn’t retreat in battle, together with the idea that we shouldn’t let our army be destroyed, to mean that we will be victorious in every battle.

Clearly, this is silly, but I fail to see how this actually follows from the argument above. Is it really a moral imperative that an army not retreat under any conditions whatsoever? Or does morality simply dictate that one not retreat without sufficient reason to do so? I’d say it is the latter, but this option is simply ignored by Mackie.

And this is another common mistake. Relativists rarely seem to understand the difference between objective morals and absolute morals. They seem to think that anyone who believes in moral objectivity believes that no consideration whatsoever should be given to the situation one is in. But no moral objectivist I know has ever said such a thing. Of course moral principals will manifest differently in different situations–that was never what was in dispute.

Mackie also claims that what is moral must follow from (supervene on) what is factual. But, as Plantinga points out, this means precisely what Mackie says it does not mean: that morals can be clues to what is factual.

After all, a news report supervenes on real events. That is to say that, were it not for those events, there would be no report. But this doesn’t remotely mean that a news report is no reason to think the reported-on event didn’t happen. Rather, it is precisely because a report is based on an event that it is a useful source of information.

Thus, if morality is supervenient, then the same principle applies. Mackie can’t simply say that morals depend on the facts of the situation in order to say that they tell us nothing about the facts.

So, all this is simply beside the point. After all, Mackie is criticizing a logically valid argument, with premises that he accepts, on the grounds that it leads to a conclusion that his materialist atheism is false. If “facts should inform our beliefs, not the other way around”, then he should accept the conclusion of the argument.

As much as I respect Mackie, he seems to be in the grip of an ideology here–claiming that true premises and valid logic can lead to a false conclusion is a fairly blatant rejection of rationality.

As to the argument itself, I’d love to see some more development of this idea. There is definitely more that could be said, but, at the end of the day, it is clear that atheism and morality are logically incompatible with one another.

If Theism Were Completely Different, It would be Unsupported

6a00e398244402883300e553e54ff88833-800wiIn discussing the moral arguments for God’s existence, J.L. Mackie takes what I find to be a reasonable approach. Still, I’ve had many criticisms of him–not the least of which is the fact that (like many atheists) he doesn’t seem to understand what theistic morality is.

That is, he repeats the long-discredited view that a theistic moral system is based on a reward-punishment system, then makes the obvious objections to that view.

But, while I’m sure that such people must exist somewhere, I can’t seem to find any real-live theist who has this as a moral system. Atheists who claim that this is what we believe, however, abound. This has always struck me as odd, and, whatever the reason for it, it remains a straw-man fallacy.

At least, I try not to draw the conclusion that people are remaining willfully ignorant of this point in order to make for better anti-theist memes. I hope this isn’t the case.

Either way, it bears repeating that theists view God as the paradigm of goodness–not unlike Plato’s form of the good. It is also the reason why the Euthyphro dilemma (which Mackie also sites against the moral arguments for God) is off-base (more on that later).

I suspect that this is an honest mistake on Mackie’s part. Still, it is a mistake, and I’d expect a better understanding than this from anyone offering a refutation of theism.

At least, it will take a stronger understanding to have any hope of a successful refutation. Since Mackie understands theistic morality this incorrectly, he is completely unable to construct a case against it. All the theist need do is say “that misses the point” to counter everything he’s said.

Mockery and Reason Are Different Things

flat,550x550,075,fIt’s amazing how many seem not to realize this.

As a case-in-point, I’d like to offer Richard Dawkins.  Following up on discussing Chris Hallquist’s failure to offer a secular moral theory in the face of the moral argument for God’s existence, I’ll respond to a recent interchange involving Dawkins making the exact same mistake.

And why he needs to learn more about the reason he claims to cherish.

Dawkins was confronted with the issue of a basis for morality in a recent interview. He launched into a series of attacks on religious traditions. And, as one who knows something about Dawkins, this was unsurprising to the point of tediousness. When asked for a secular basis for morality, Dawkins can be counted on to sidestep the issue and launch in to a gripe about (his deeply uninformed understanding of) the Bible and the Koran.

I mention it, however, for two reasons:

First is the fact that it has become so monotonous. Dawkins has had ample time to come up with a more substantial response than cheap mockery. If he wishes to rant about religion, that is his right. But one would expect him to either present an alternative for examination–or admit that he’s simply emoting without any real case to make.

After all, it is remarkably easy to play the critic (particularly against straw men); the difficulty comes in offering something better.

And Dawkins fails completely in this regard. He not only doesn’t do better, he doesn’t even try. He seems to systematically avoid putting his own concept of morality up for consideration–and that’s a little like challenging someone to a boxing match, but only on the condition that he’s not allowed to throw any punches.

Second is the aforementioned fact that he completely misrepresents theism. But I’ll not spend much time on this, because I think the fact is obvious to any who care to look. Rather, I’ll quote Dennis Prager in his response to Dawkins.

“Dawkins and his supporters have a right to atheism. They do not have a right to intellectual dishonesty about atheism.”

And that is what these rants from Dawkins, Hallquist, and the bulk of their fans seem to be:  a dodging of the question and a gripe about a version of theism that almost no one actually believes in. And that is exactly the kind of response one would expect to hear out of a group that has trouble understanding the difference between mocking a position and answering its challenges.

What it is not is a rational defense of secular morality.

Nor would it defend Dawkins to say that he’s sincere. Personally, I believe that he is. I’d imagine that he’s so focused on inventing clever and vitriolic statements that he’s personally never noticed that he hasn’t answered the question being asked.

If so, then he’s more interested in what feels true (and making something feel true to others) than in what actually is true.

And this is always where I find myself in considering the New Atheism: for all the bluster about reason, they seem much more interested in mockery and other emotional tactics. The fact that Dawkins can’t offer even a single reason in defense of his moral theory hasn’t slowed him down one bit.

And that leaves me wondering how much he really cares about taking a reasonable view of life in the first place.

The Best Defense…

hulk-smash1-300x199Next in Hallquist’s discussion on William Lane Craig, we come to the moral argument. The argument is summarized as follows:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

The first response Hallquist (aka ‘The Uncredible Hallq’) makes is the claim that Craig’s definition of “objective” needs work. Craig defines “objective moral values” to mean the idea that something is good or evil regardless of whether or not any human happens to think so. Here, I’m somewhat inclined to agree with Hallquist. He rightly points out that this wouldn’t exclude alien-opinion (or any other kind) as the basis of ‘objective’ morality.

Where I diverge from Hallquist is in his suggestion that we replace “human” with “anyone”, then (given that God is included in “anyone”) dismiss God as a source of morality. He claims that Craig has simply rigged his definition to avoid this response, but I think it is much more likely that Craig simplified his definition for a lay audience. Really, it seems to be Hallquist’s treatment of the matter that is ‘rigged’.

Craig’s divine morality isn’t based on what God happens to think, but on God’s moral nature. Beyond that, his argument only requires that morality not be based on the subjective view of finite beings (like humans and aliens). I think it is fairly clear that Craig is simply trying to avoid confusing the reader by sticking to humans in his lay-level definition. But Hallquist, keen as he is to accuse Craig of dishonesty, doesn’t even consider this possibility.

And it strikes me as more than a little suspicious to throw out accusations of dishonesty while ignoring the perfectly innocent possibilities as to why Craig might do something.

But, refreshingly, Hallquist agrees with Craig that morality should be objective. As one who’s always believed that morality based simply on what people think is not morality (and, yes, I believed this before I was a Christian), I’m glad to see some common ground here.

That being the case, it is disappointing that Hallquist doesn’t actually offer a theory of morality, but simply attacks Craig’s. The key point isn’t to discredit Craig; it is (or, at least, should be) to show that there is a view superior to the best of the Divine Command theories of morality.

Many, if not most, Divine Command theorists claim that God’s morality is based on his good nature: that morals are neither arbitrary nor based on an external standard. This is significant because Hallquist asserts that this theory is insane because it asserts that “our moral duties are whatever God says they are”.

Whether Hallquist is spinning, or has simply misunderstood, this is a horrible distortion of Craig’s position. More importantly, it isn’t a valid refutation of Divine Command moral theory. And this is a problem for a writer who can’t seem to get through a page without asserting that “Craig is either dishonest or incompetent”.

But we need an alternative moral theory that Hallquist actually supports. Without this, we are left with an extremely common situation: a passionate atheist quick to dismiss arguments from a theist, but completely unwilling to present an alternative view for equal consideration. If that is one’s modus operandi, one need not have anything like a reasonable position in order to ‘win’ the argument.

Which is why this tactic has always struck me as highly suspicious.

Rejecting the Obvious

willfully-ignoring-the-obviousThere are no natural rights— rights one has just by virtue of being human. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 288)

This runs very counter to what most people believe, but, given atheism, it seems very hard to deny. After all, the materialism which is the basis of nearly all modern atheism denies the reality of any moral truth or value.

Most atheists I know would agree with this, but would emphasize that a person need not believe in moral truth in order to be a nice person. One can claim that morality is simply culturally relative, biologically advantageous, or otherwise subjective, and still be a good person.

This seems true enough, but is a side issue. Whatever I may think of a particular atheist, or even the impact of atheism on social health, the question is over truth. Is it more likely that humans have rights, or that God does not exist? Personally, I think most of us wouldn’t be confident enough of God’s non-existence to accept the idea that people don’t have rights beyond what governments happen to give them. Rather, I think we would say that a government which enslaves its people, or slaughters a racial minority, is in the wrong.

And this is because we have a sense of the moral that is as basic as our sense of the physical. The fact that there is no physical evidence for the moral no more refutes the moral than the lack of moral evidence for the physical refutes the material.

But this does make materialism seem rather arbitrary. It would be rather tidy if we could dismiss all knowledge that isn’t as easily reduced to mathematics as the material. But, setting aside the convenience of it, and the rhetorical value of being “scientific”, I don’t see any reason to think that it is true.

Rejecting a basic fact of human experience as illusory requires a reason that is more palpably true than the experience itself. This could be done in theory, but no one has yet to offer a reason to believe in materialism (or in atheism) that is as obviously true as the fact that it is wrong to torture innocent people.

The Moral Facts

KevinCarterchildA lot has been said to demonstrate the reasonableness of belief in the non-physical. But, if we know of things (such as the mind) which are not physical, we have very good reason to think that the physical senses don’t exhaust all ways of knowing.

In fact, real-world personal experience is our most fundamental way of knowing about reality. It isn’t perfect, of course, but gives us a basic sense of what exists.

That being the case, there is no good reason to throw out the idea of moral truth.

For every argument that there is no such thing as objective moral truth, a parallel argument could be made that there is no such thing as physical reality. It really makes no sense, then, to insist that we trust our physical senses, but not our moral sense.

One might say, for instance, that not everyone has the same moral senses–or that different cultures have different values. But this strikes me as no different than saying that green is a shade of blue in Japan, or that the sky is bronze according to the ancient Greeks. If this is not a reason to think that our sight is completely untrustworthy as a sense, it should not be a reason to reject the moral sense.

Or, one might say that there is no reason to believe in moral truth other than our moral sense. And this is no different from saying that there is no reason to believe in the physical world other than our physical senses. People have always trusted our basic sense of reality until we have a good reason not to.

There are a number of these arguments, but none of them establishes that moral truth is any more questionable than physical reality.

That being the case, the modern tendency to embrace moral relativism, while scoffing at solipsism, seems more a cultural assumption than anything which has been defended on logical grounds. Really, I doubt it would be accepted at all if not for the stereotype that relativism is the position of educated people.

And it is more a stereotype than reality. College professors are consistently less relativistic than their students. And the philosophy department (where specialists in ethics reside) are the least relativistic of professors. That being the case, the rhetorical force that relativism is somehow the sophisticated view loses its force.

So, to move on from stereotypes and rhetoric, philosophies should explain our experience of life, not call it illusory. I think we have a basic sense that causing pain, or refusing to help those in need is wrong–and that loving others and seeing to their needs is good. Dismissing these rather obvious truths as illusory would be trying to fit the facts to our theory, rather than the other way around.

But, if one sees the reality of moral truth, one is left trying to explain why it should exist. And that, I would argue, will lead one toward theism.

Taking a Stand for Relativism

Batman-vs.-Relativism-Part-4“Good and bad are simply concepts in your mind.”

I’ve long since lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered this sentiment. Obviously, I disagree with it. I’ll explain why in a later post. For now, I’m more interested in a particular fact about the people who make the claim.

No, it is not that these people are committing themselves either to open nihilism or a large amount of irrationality in their daily actions. True as that is, there’s something else that is pointed out far less often:

This statement, in the context of debates on religion, almost always comes from people who insist that they are not claiming that God does not exist.

Many atheists have put a lot of energy into defining their position as “a lack of belief in God”, rather than a belief that there is no God. Such people tend to be very insistent that they need not make a case against God’s existence. Since they aren’t claiming God doesn’t exist, so the argument goes, they needn’t support their position–that is for the theist to do.

I’m not one to argue definitions, so I’ll not comment on the validity of this one. But, under any definition, there are severe problems with this tact. Most pertinently, the claim that morality is subjective presumes that God does not exist. Such a statement should, therefore, be supported by reasons to believe that God does not exist.

Of course, the atheist in question could simply avoid making such claims. She could simply introduce moral relativism as a possibility, rather than state it outright. This would be a perfect solution, so long as she is solely interested in winning debates without regard for behaving in a logically consistent manner.

This is to say that, unless one is abdicating all right to make any statement in a moral discussion or hold any position about morals at all (even in daily life), one is going to have to take a position on God’s existence. One simply has no room to say that this or that religious moral is wrong, even in a subjective sense, until one has shown the religion in question to be false.

One’s position may be tentative, of course, but simply “not believing” isn’t enough.

Personal Feelings Trump Divine Revelation

6_satan-cast-outThough Bertrand Russell makes very standard  (if extremely overstated) accusations of Christianity’s past, he also makes a comment about the present that I find at least as strange.

I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.

Supposing that in this world that we live in today an inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man; in that case the Catholic Church says, “This is an indissoluble sacrament. You must endure celibacy or stay together”.

Russell promises us that there are many more examples that he could have named. Of course, this really does nothing to prove that the negative examples outweigh the positive ones. Rather, this is simply a case of anecdotal evidence. Russell would be right to dismiss my argument if I claimed that Richard Dawkins’ rather callous position on the sexual abuse of children proves that secularism is evil, and his claim here is no different.

The New Atheists, for all their professed commitment to science, are even more prone to this mistake than Russell. In fact, they rarely seem at all interested in actual studies on the matter of religion. After all, these studies contradict, rather than support, their position.

Of course, this all assumes that the Catholic church is clearly in the wrong. While I can empathize with Russell’s concern, his objection seems to be based on a few assumptions, the most pertinent of which is the idea that a marriage relationship is based on sex, rather than the sex being based on the relationship. At least, singling this out as his choice example of the “principle enemy of progress in the world” seems to imply that a celibate marriage is an affront to basic human rights–even more, apparently than the subjugation of impoverished nations by wealthy countries (which seems to bother neither him nor the New Atheists).

Even if one disagrees with the Catholic position, then, he has hardly made a case that religion is the greatest force of evil in the world. Rather, it seems simply a complaint that religious institutions don’t agree with Russell’s personal scruples.

In fact, he says so almost directly:

There are a great many ways in which, at the present moment, the church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering.

On what grounds, one wonders, can Russell claim to judge the morality of a religion? What is considered “unnecessary” depends on what one accepts as moral. While it is obvious that some things are unnecessary from a secular, western, caucasian, post-enlightenment cultural view of reality, no religious group is obligated to agree with that position. And it seems entirely odd that Russell should think his culture should trump all other views.

As such, it isn’t possible to even make this complaint without being guilty of what one accuses the church: declaring that everyone should accept one’s own moral system.