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« God's Will (Video) | Main | Prayer Request for Greg's Trip to Italy »

February 06, 2012

Comments

Although I'm a Christian myself, I do think that these atheistic arguments hold some water as an internal critique of the Christian worldview. (Holding some water doesn't mean that I ultimately accept their conclusions, of course.)

I do think that it's an interesting question within Christianity why a lot of God's actions, particularly in the Old Testament, seem to contradict our innate sense of morality or even the claims we often make about morality. For instance, there's the question of how people can claim that Christianity is pro-life when God commands wars in the OT.

Of course, this doesn't take them to the same place they'd like, where they can judge God as tyrannical from their own worldview.

I agree, Jeremy.
I think the atheist has to enter into the Christian worldview to sustain this critique. But once they do this they have to deal with the whole of the Biblical testimony, which says that God is all good, all knowing and perfectly just.
From this point of view I have a few options when I read an account in which God seems unjust: my interpretation of the passage is wrong or incomplete; I am missing relevant facts which God, of course, is not; my moral compass still needs calibrating.
Having seen so many problem passages explained when those options have been exercised in the past I am comfortable knowing that remaining concerns have answers that i am just unaware of right now. As William Lane Craig says, we should work on tackling these as it builds our faith to see them answered, but we have to know that when we die we will still have some unanswered questions.

Jeremy,I understand where you're coming from,but the context of this post is dealing mainly with distinguishing between objective morality versus subjective morality which would be the relativism in which Melinda is directly dealing with. On the Philocristos blogsite,there's a very profound explanation made by Sam,the blog's owner under the heading "If there is no God,then there is no objective moral values". To elaborate on Melinda's points,here are some of what Sam states, "In general,an objective truth claim is a claim about the object,and a subjective truth claim is a claim about the subject. I have a little thumb rule to help me tell the difference between a subjective truth claim and an objective truth claim. If two statements that contradict each other can both be true,then the statements are SUBJECTIVE. If two statements that contradict each other CANNOT both be true,then the statement is OBJECTIVE. Let me give some examples. Take the two statements, 'Icecream tastes good' and 'Icecream tastes bad'. These two statements contradict each other,but they can nevertheless both be true. Why? Because one statement is made by a person who likes icecream,and the other statement is made by a person who does not like icecream. Furthermore,the statements are not about the icecream;the statemnts are about the tastes of the people making the claims. When a person says,'Icecream tastes good', he's saying that he likes the way the icecream tastes. IT'S A SUBJECTIVE STATEMENT. The person making the claim is the SUBJECT,and the icecream is the OBJECT. Now take another two statements, 'Blue Bell makes icecream' and 'Blue Bell does not make icecream'. These two statements are OBJECTIVE because they cannot both be true. No matter who makes the statements,they cannot be true because they are about the OBJECT,Blue Bell, and not the subjects making the claims" end of quote.

So here,Melinda is showing how the athiest inadvertently contradicts what he/she claims to be subjective by flipping on the OBJECTIVE switch in the middle of trying to justify their view of God. There is a scripture for people like the athiest that is present in the post: "Professing themselves to be wise,they became fools.."(Romans 1:22) and "For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it written,He takes the wise in their own deceit"(I Corinthians 3:19). It's like trying to convice somebody that there is no such thing as absolute truths.

“They have no standard by which to say anyone else is wrong.” So the only way you can say, “X is bad” is if you have an objective standard?

If by “objective” you mean “shared,” I agree. My saying “X is BLAH” means nothing unless we have a common vocabulary and know what BLAH means. But I think you mean that morality is transcendentally or supernaturally grounded. In this case, you need to show that such a remarkable situation exists and that we can reliably tap into these transcendental moral truths.

When we look at the morality common among most people, are we seeing universal moral truth? Or are we seeing universally held moral instincts? The latter is much easier to imagine. No questions left hanging.

I explore this in more depth here: Understanding Morality—it’s Really Not That Hard.

Galileo,I know what you mean. Hey check this out: This is an excerpt taken from a writer speaking against those who deny the existence of absolute truths---"You can't logically argue against the existence of absolute truth. To argue against something is to establish that a truth exists. You cannot argue against absolute truth unless an absolute truth is the basis of your argument. Cosider few of the classic arguments and declarations made by those who seek to argue against the existence of absolute truth..

Statement #1--"There are no absolutes". First of all, the relativist is declaring there are absolutely no absolutes. That is an absolute statement. The statement is logically contradictory. If the statement is true,there is,in fact,an absolute--'there are absolutely no absolutes'.

Statement #2--"Truth is relative". Again,this is an absolute statement implying that truth is absolutely relative. Besides positing an absolute,suppose the statement was true and "truth is relative"? Everything including that statement would be relative. If a statement is relative,IT IS NOT ALWAYS TRUE. If "truth is relative" is not always true,sometimes "truth" is not relative. This means that there are absolutes,which means that the above statement is false. When you follow the logic,relativist arguments will always contradict themselves.

Statement #3--"Who knows what truth is,right?" In the same sentence,the speaker declares that no one knows what truth is;then he turns around and asks those who are listening to him to affirm the truth of his statement.

Statement #4--"No one knows what truth is" The speaker obviously believes his statement is true" end of quote.

"The latter is much easier to imagine."

Well, that clears up a lot of life's ultimate questions for me. I should just go with whatever solution is easiest for me to imagine. Heaven forbid we have any questions left hanging. That might suggest that life is, I dunno, like, complicated or something.

I think he just means "more plausible" Bennett.
Maybe I'm wrong.

It seems that the atheist definition of immoral is along the lines of 'anything that causes physical or other type of harm to someone else'. Since there is a lot of God's judgment going on in the OT and since that judgment results in people dying or some other type of pain/harm, that is why they call God immoral. But I've never seen this point addressed by Christians.

I realize that you can't even call pain/harm/death to humans morally wrong without having some sort of objective standard. But I think it comes across as reasonably logical from the atheist point of view. After all, human suffering is something we can observe. Any thoughts on how to deal with this specific point?

Firstly, atheists don't all have the same moral philosophy. Some ascribe to relativism and others to some form of utilitarianism. (There are others but for my purposes they are irrelevant.)

It's really easy to find an atheist who claims to be a relativist and then through a series of questions, show that they have an inconsistency in their moral philosophy. It's easy to trap a Christian in a similar way on twitter or in a conversation when you get into the gritty details of the OT. A lot of this is because many laymen have little or no philosophical training. This is one of the reasons I really like what STR does. They introduce Christians and churches to moral philosophy outside of the bible. They have great essay's that explain basic pitfalls and help Christians understand their way around the terms and arguments.

I do get sick of seeing posts that pick on an ignorant atheist. And citations of Dawkins on subjects out of his field. Oh wells.

I will say more later but my adderal is wearing off and I need to go play video games or go spaz out somewhere.

Cheers.

Hmmm. You're going to hate tomorrow's then. Sorry about that, Josh.

Richard W:

These claims about self-defeating arguments I call "caltrop arguments."

The believer shuts down the statement "There are no absolutes" with "That sounded like a rather absolute statement, my friend!" Then the atheist sighs and says, "OK, what I should've said is: I see no evidence of absolutes."

I find these rebuttals to be merely the attempt at avoiding the conversation.

Personally, I see no evidence of absolute moral truths. If you have any, I'd like to see it.

What believers typically come back with is universally accepted (or nearly so) moral statements--"killing without justification is wrong," for example. OK, but I see no reason to imagine that this is an absolute moral truth.

Mo:

I realize that you can't even call pain/harm/death to humans morally wrong without having some sort of objective standard.

An objective standard would be one way, assuming that we can all access it. Another would be moral instincts common to all humans (what makes the most sense to me).

So, does morality come from rules, or from virtues?

Bennett,those are very good questions that we need to address. I totally agree. I'm wondering the same thing because I'm still trying to decipher this whole objective and subjective moral catastrophe. How would we define a situation where someone says "It's wrong to cross the road when cars are coming" versus "Don't cross the road when cars are coming"?. You see,here are two statements both relaying similar subjects,but one out of the two statements is constituting a moral sentiment. The other one is just the obvious caution to be careful or you'll get killed or injured. How we classify these terms?

Bennett,those are very good questions that we need to address. I totally agree. I'm wondering the same thing because I'm still trying to decipher this whole objective and subjective moral catastrophe. How would we define a situation where someone says "It's wrong to cross the road when cars are coming" versus "Don't cross the road when cars are coming"?. You see,here are two statements both relaying similar subjects,but one out of the two statements is constituting a moral sentiment. The other one is just the obvious caution to be careful or you'll get killed or injured. How do we classify these terms?

Indeed. I was wondering about it in the context of the "Moral instinct" that GU there posits. Is he saying that the MI itself is the site and source of morality, or that it's the generator of moral reasoning, which in turn points us towards morality? And would that morality, then be embodied in rules which we discern, or virtues which we embody?

Is the moral mortal a good person because he decides what is moral (figuring out the rules) or is moral behavior deemed so because it corresponds to a good person's acts (virtues)?

Galileo,in response to your question, my previous post was dealing with general absolute truths,not absolute moral truths. I was quoting from an exerpt from a writer arguing against those who deny the existence of absolute truths. However,absolute moral truths is another level of thought as to if there is evidence of absolute moral truths. And like I pointed out in my recent post,are we viewing this from a warning/caution standpoint or are we addressing evidence of right and wrong? I could very well say to somebody, "Don't cross the road when cars are coming" just the same as "It's wrong to cross the road when cars are coming". Is there any evidence of an absolute moral truth in that aspect? Well,you be the judge. Taking into consideration,that we also have to look at it from a common-sense point of view: When cars are coming,who would even dare to attempt to go out into the road anyway? So why is it that we need rules which may very well serve to insult our common sense?

Bennett,in whatever context you asked the questions,those were good questions. Does morality come from rules or virtues? Really,what is a good person?There's so much to consider even with the vast population of those who are advocates of relativism and subjective morality. Society has their definition,cultures have their definition and different groups and orientations have a specific definition of what it means to be "good". It couldn't just boil down to following a set of rules and regulations because even in the rules and regulations of today we have severe moral issues. So,maybe I might lean towards morality coming from virtues through some internal transformation or progression of the person's heart transcending from a bad conscience to a good conscience. I don't know,I'm trying to understand it,but I guess we all have different interpretations. If there was only one we could agree,woudn't that be something.

There may also be an issue here that we are using terms like "universal", "absolute" and "objective" interchangably, as well as "subjective" and "relative" as virtually synonymous, but we would need to be certain that they are in order to use them thus.

For example, because of the gravitational difference, time moves just a bit slower for satellites than on earth, and this has to be accounted for. That is because of relativity, but but subjectivity--it is an objective difference, which we can measure and agree upon.

Beauty, on the other hand, is universal across cultures--all have a concept of it--but it is also subjective, each person has his own tastes; and it is also relative, each culture and situation provides inputs.

So it may be quite right to say that a given moral attitude or action was "objectively" moral or immoral, in its granted context, without asserting that it would be a universal or absolute standard for everyone in all contexts. Teachers, for example, are held to a higher standard in the Bible, as were the Levites. Kosher eating was never meant for all humanity. The Samurai of Japan held to a code of Bushido that the typical peasant not only didn't emulate but would have been considered immoral and ridiculous for trying to.

And yet, these people did discern what was right and wrong. The difference between calling that objective and subjective is that, if it were truly subjective, only they could decide for themselves what they experienced and how to weight its morality. On the other hand, if there were objective values, another person in similar circumstances, or one who was a neutral observer, (or certainly God himself, with an omniscent point of view) could determine just as well what was "right" and what was "wrong". Our entire court system is based on the idea that we can figure out whether a person's actions were right or wrong, without having the same tastes and experiences as that person.

Moral instincts exist, sure. The conscience would go towards that. But I think that there is, in fact, something we can all agree on as to whether compassion, self-control, integrity, honesty, generosity, justice, and so on are virtues or vices, and furthermore, we can agree as to whether they are what they are (ie, whether compassion is compassion is *not* subjective, any more so than whether heat is heat; we could dicker over the relativity issue, as to just "how" compassionate a thing was, but it is what it is).

Now, can an instinct *determine* what a virtue is? I would submit that it cannot. It can discern it, sure, but that implies necessarily that there is something to discern. The instinct must be accurate in order to persist. If my mating instinct pointed me to the wrong species or gender, I would fail to reproduce. If my survival drive told me that tables and chairs were food and not furniture, I'd have a lot more fibre in my diet, but much less edible material. If my equilibrium couldn't say which way was up or down accurately, I'd just spend my days rolling around like an intoxicated earthworm.

In fact, even if the "moral instinct" is a function of reason and not biological determinism, it still can only discern, but it cannot determine. I may be able to realize, with my reason, that 2 + 2 = 4, or that Paris is in France, but I cannot decide for myself whether these claims are true--it either is or isn't.

So yes, I would assert that there are objective moral values, albeit I would assert that they are most reliably seen in virtue, rather than in codices and declarative statements.

It is perfectly fair to place men on the horns of Euthyphro's Dilemma. I think I've shown some reason to believe that, since it cannot be that men declare what is good by fiat, it must be that men fall on the other horn--we live under a standard of goodness to which we must conform.

Now, the materialist still may assert that the undirected random processes of the universe produced those standards, somehow or another, and we just figure 'em out over millenia of evolution. I don't know whether that's possible, but it's pretty hard for me to imagine. As some old philosopher said, show me a machine that builds men, and then we'll talk.

Richard W:

I see your point about absolute truths vs. absolute moral truths.

Is “1 + 1 = 2” an absolute truth? I suppose, but that conversation doesn’t interesting me.

But the question of absolute moral truths is much more relevant to our daily lives.

“It’s wrong to cross the road when cars are coming” is structured like a moral statement, but this is a safety issue, not a moral one. Doesn’t seem very relevant for that reason.

When it comes to morality, I have seen no evidence of absolute moral truths. “Universally held” moral truths (or nearly so) sounds much more supportable by evidence.

GU,

Again, you keep hurling around "universal" and "absolute"; I've already agreed with you that universal and absolute moral facts (at least when phrased as declarative or imperative statements) are unlikely to be supportable (although if my more learned peers, such as WisdomLover or Malebranche want to hop in and disagree with me on that, I welcome the education). What we're talking about is "objective" moral facts, not "universal" or "absolute". Until we're all using those definitions consistently, our discussion suffers from a problem of equivocation. Both of us could, in a sense, be right, just as if I said that Chad Ochocinco is not "professional" and you said that he is, because I meant "serious and aboveboard" and you meant "compensated monetarily".

So please, when you say "universal" what do you mean? Is it the same as "absolute", and are both of those the same as "objective"? I have laid out why I think they are not, I'd like to know whether you do and why. If you do not, then why would the absence of "universals" or "absolutes" impinge on "objectives"?

Bennett:

I thought my use of universal was clear, but let me try again.

when you say "universal" what do you mean? Is it the same as "absolute", and are both of those the same as "objective"?

No. Universally-held moral instincts are simply held by everyone (in practice, pretty much everyone). This is what best explains what I see.

“Absolute” IMO is in the same bin as transcendental or supernatural. There are differences, of course, but these are words that have some sort of grounding outside of human instincts or opinions.

And “objective” is tricky. It is often used to simply mean “able to be shown as true in a straightforward way.” For example, “I have a yellow car.” I can show you the yellow car in my driveway, I can show you my license to prove my identity, I can show you the registration information for the car, and so on. Without a lot of effort, you can convince yourself of the truth of this statement to as high a degree of reliability as you demand.

However, the typical meaning is usually that, like “absolute,” something objectively true is grounded in something outside human instincts or opinions.

I haven’t read everything above, so I don’t know how close our definitions line up.

Back to the issue at hand: I see no evidence for absolute (transcendentally grounded) moral truths, but if you have some, I’d like to hear it. Instead, I think that universally-held moral instincts (plus social constructs on top of that) explain human morality. Everything is explained naturally, which is much preferred to a supernaturally grounded explanation.

My definitions for the terms would be the following.

A thing is universal if it applies equally, everywhere, for all time. An example would be the statement that 2 + 2 = 4. That is always true, no matter where or when you are.

A thing is absolute if it is beyond dispute. For example, if you eat only Twinkies and drink only soda, you will not be able to gain lean muscle mass. (There may be other negative effects from such a diet, but they are not universal owing to differences of gender, age, metabolism, etc.) It is physically impossible for this to happen, and thus it is an absolute fact. It can be stated with an unshakable level of certainty, but it does not require supernatural grounding; it is also not the same as being objective.

Objective facts are those which are not a matter of opinion. This is in contrast to subjective facts, which are a matter of taste or personal values. I can, for example, tell you objectively that if you would like to gain muscle and lose fat, you should reduce your sugar intake and increase your protein intake. The exact diet plan is not an absolute (it would have a degree of uncertainty and latitude in it), and certainly not universal (it would be tailored for you, and your personal needs and goals). I could, thus, state objectively that you should eat X, Y, and Z, while drinking W. But this may not be absolute fact (especially given that your goals, while subjectively valid, might have objective health concerns, or so on).

Obviously there is some overlap here.

Mathematical truths are universal, absolute, and objective, of course.

On the other hand, the statement "The schools teach advanced mathematics" is objective--either they do or do not teach those maths. But it is not universal--not all schools everywhere do so.

So there's certainly room to move around in these definitions, but it's important to note that a thing can be objective--your nose either is or is not on your face--but it may not be universal or absolute.

Now, that being laid out, obviously there is no "universal" moral instinct. If it is only "mostly" shared, then that is not universal. It is widely-held, but not universal. But whether we all *know* or *feel* something doesn't change its objective truth value.

Furthermore, the human instinct cannot be absolute--we do not have the level of knowledge or authority required to make an absolute judgement of all things.

So we come back to the grounding problem. Your argument that "instincts" and "constructs" explain morality is partially correct. Those things tell us what is moral. But don't confuse the messenger with the message, nor the message with the actual facts. The first guy to run to Athens from Marathon was not the victory at Marathon, nor did the Athenian's learning of the victory cause it to exist. How we learn things, and even what we know of them, doesn't determine what the facts are.

So we come down to what, exactly, is the nature of moral truth? Now, there may very well be absolute or universal moral truths, but we should admit a degree of agnosticism that we are ourselves capable of judging what those things may be, owing to our limited information-gathering and processing.

But does that make those things subjective? Absolutely not. (Pardon the phrase)

We may hem and haw a little about whether this or that thing is moral, or to what extent, or what the circumstances may be, but that hemming and hawing doesn't change: A) Whether there is a fact of the matter, or B) Whether those facts exist to be found.

People disagree about the cause of obesity (or exactly where to draw the line and call someone obese), but that doesn't mean that obesity either doesn't exist, or doesn't have a cause. Obviously it does both.

It's a bit amusing that we even disagree about whether morality really exists--it's like Romans during the Pax Romana arguing about whether the armies really exist, because we can't see them before our eyes (indeed, the army was never allowed into Rome, for reasons that Caesar later made obvious.) Such a debate merely allowed sheltered intellectuals to engage in sophistry without producing anything of value. Furthermore, the best evidence that the armies existed was that they had the luxury of sitting around and having such an insipid chat--if there were no Roman Legions, there would be no Pax Romana, and with no Pax, they'd all be getting savaged by barbarians.

Some writers who have seen the darkest, scariest parts of the world critique intellectuals like the New Atheists as spoiled, middle-class brats who don't just bite the hand that feeds, they question its existence. They are so immersed in a fluffy, safe existence that starvation, depredation, and horror are just words to them. The Problem of Evil is an exercise of the mind, but not something they really deal with.

Heck, there's a reason that you get some excellent, grounded moral philosophy out of samurai. They were educated men, yes, but men whose lives depended on their ability to wield meter-long razors to kill other men. They weren't interested in fripperies or rhetorical flourishes.

That may even be part of why the Israelites, a warrior people, were chosen over the Greeks, or some other lot of peaceful, civilized philosophers. You learn a lot more about the real nature of ethics when you're stuck out in a desert, surrounded by men who'd love to kill you with knives, take your stuff, and rape your wife, than you do peddling around the Parthenon, drinking tea.

For all our vaunted sympathy for the poor, starving, suffering peoples of Africa and China, they are the ones who resent God the least, and welcome the Gospel the most. Moral truth is very real to them. It doesn't matter whether it's "transcendental" or goes beyond this reality. It exists in this reality, and has to be dealt with as such--a real fact, not just some opinion. Stuff happens, you have to do something about it, and there are right and wrong choices. Don't be so obtuse as to pretend you think it's solely opinion whether it's right or wrong for me to defend myself from an assailant, or steal from a poor widow, or abandon my child on a rock because I really wanted blue eyes instead of brown. Not even cultural values justify evil--or shall we reinstitute widow-burning and the caste system in India, and foot-binding in China?

I argue, therefore, that morality exists as objectively as the Great Wall, or the knife in another man's hand. Whether you like it, love it, hate it, or just suck it up and deal with it is up to you. That's all subjective and a matter of taste, but the choices, their outcomes and their virtues, those exist quite apart from your assessment (or even knowledge) of them.

Bennett:

Now, that being laid out, obviously there is no "universal" moral instinct.

OK. I was talking about universally-held moral instincts. And I qualified it by saying that it’s not actually universally-held but nearly so.

This plus social norms (which vary from society to society, of course) explains human morality IMO. I see no need for anything supernatural, transcendental, absolute, or similar. If you think that objective (that is, grounded outside of humans) moral truths exist and that humans can reliably access them, I need some evidence. I’ve seen none.

Some … critique intellectuals like the New Atheists as spoiled, middle-class brats who don't just bite the hand that feeds, they question its existence.

I certainly question whether God exists (seeing no more evidence for Yahweh as there is for many of the other gods). Whether I’m spoiled I’ll leave for another discussion.

For all our vaunted sympathy for the poor, starving, suffering peoples of Africa and China, they are the ones who resent God the least, and welcome the Gospel the most.

Could be, but this is no argument that God exists.

Stuff happens, you have to do something about it, and there are right and wrong choices.

Amen. Now you’re talking like an atheist!

Don't be so obtuse as to pretend you think it's solely opinion whether it's right or wrong for me to defend myself from an assailant, or steal from a poor widow, or abandon my child on a rock because I really wanted blue eyes instead of brown.

When I say, “It’s morally correct to defend yourself,” what am I saying but that this is my opinion? Obviously, almost everyone would agree with me—this is our universally-held moral instinct. This is where laws come from.

Is this true on some higher plane? If so, show me. Again, that humans have a shared moral instinct explains this completely. No need to invent a supernatural something-or-other to explain this.

If you reply that you have shown me, here’s what I want: take a moral dilemma within society. Maybe “Is capital punishment moral?” or “Is abortion moral?” Show me that the answer to one of these questions is (1) objective (that is, grounded outside human instinct) and (2) accessible by giving an argument that almost everyone agrees with.

GU,

For starters, I'm not sure what you mean by "Now you're talking like an atheist." Seeing as the only truly atheistic statement is "There is no God", and everything else is up for debate. I'd assume that you mean "Now you make sense", as within your set of values atheism is sense, and everything else is nonsense. So, while I find the underlying assumption patronizing, thanks for the intended compliment.

Okay, so, you lay out two example questions, and would like to see that I can answer one of them in such a way that I show the response to be (1) Objective--which you say is "grounded outside human instinct". For the sake of shared vocabulary, may I substitute "opinion" for "instinct"? I find the idea of "instinct" very hazy--it could mean drives, tastes, appetites, whatever, whereas "opinion" I can at least wield usefully. I would also need to show, if I follow you, that (2) The answer is accessible. You clarify that "accessible" means "almost everyone agrees with" it.

Well, which "everyone"? Everyone in North America? Everyone in the world? Everyone in the Free World? Everyone at Sea World? My family? My Church? I could select any group I want, until I find one that mostly accepts the same assumptions as I do, and then call that "morality". It's what most people do, in order to feel comfortable. Being comfortable, of course, has no bearing on being correct.

I'm afraid I have to reject your second criterion, as it represents an informal fallacy--an appeal to the people.

I would instead offer that I should be required to show a logical argument that any reasonable person is capable of understanding, and would generally be expected to agree with. This is closer to the standard of law, in terms of what makes for a "rational claim", and we can probably work with that more feasibly than attempting some sort of worldwide opinion poll--which in the end, is just grounded in human opinion, and would contradict your first requirement.

Sound about right?

PS - I mean this to be solely a discussion of whether there such a thing as an objective moral value. Even if you said "Yes, there is", I promise not to turn around and say "A ha, so you admit theism, because of the Moral Argument." There's more than a few atheist, Buddhist, Taoist, and other philosophers who don't accept subjective morality *or* the Trinitarian God. So I'm not trying to play a gotcha game with you here.

Bennett:

For starters, I'm not sure what you mean by "Now you're talking like an atheist."

You avoided, “It’s in the hands of God” or “It’s all part of God’s plan” or something similar. Your practical, get-it-done critique is what an atheist would say.

while I find the underlying assumption patronizing, thanks for the intended compliment.

Patronizing? “You think like me” couldn’t mean anything but a compliment!

may I substitute "opinion" for "instinct"? I find the idea of "instinct" very hazy

I’d prefer “programming” but opted for “instinct” instead. It’s what we have out of the box (as opposed to what we develop from our lives within society). “Opinion” is not a synonym.

Well, which "everyone"?

The big “everyone.” Everyone that you would call God’s people.

I'm afraid I have to reject your second criterion, as it represents an informal fallacy--an appeal to the people.

Huh?

You see the reason for this, right? Some Christians argue that morality is objective but that it’s not reliably accessible. It’s like rules in God’s library to which we don’t have a library card. Morality that is objective but inaccessible isn’t interesting to talk about IMO. It’s like arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin—irrelevant to our lives.

I would instead offer that I should be required to show a logical argument that any reasonable person is capable of understanding, and would generally be expected to agree with. This is closer to the standard of law

Yes it is, but we’ve drifted away from the idea of God’s objective, accessible moral law. I’m familiar with laws and how people argue with each other and how they change their minds. That’s all natural. What we’re talking about is something else—something grounded outside people. Supernatural, I would imagine.

Apologists like WLC often justify their objective morality claim with “we all just know that this exists.” And that’s it. Incredible that something so fundamental they don’t spend a few sentences to justify. I certainly don’t know that it exists. What Christians might point to as objectively true--“it’s always wrong to torture,” perhaps--is better explained IMO as being universally accepted (again: I mean almost so).

GU,

I can see we need to clarify a few things, still. I have already conceded that it is very problematic to make universal, absolute claims about moral standards, because such a thing is by nature going to be problematic. My claim is nothing so immodest as "It is true that all examples of capital punishment are wrongful."

I would, however, submit that we can look at a specific example of capital punishment, and determine--without recourse to "programming", a sly way of saying "biological cognitive determinism" and thus irrelevant to a rational discussion--whether that instance was morally correct. This could be argued for deductively and conclusively. However, attempting to make blanket judgements "All X are wrong" would be to reason inductively from that specific instance, to other instances which may not be sufficiently like it to make such a judgement proper.

I certainly don't hope you're asking me to say that all capital punishment cases are identical. And if they are not identical, then why should we judge them all to be identical? It's plainly silly.

So, what I have said is "There is such a thing as an objective moral value" and I have clarified that I mean this as a thing which is based in positive virtues and negative vices.

For example, humility is a virtue. It avoids the poles of pride and self-loathing, both of which are an unrealistic and harmful image of oneself. Humility is necessarily good, because it will cause no harm, and will tend to cause beneficial effects in material, mental, and (if they exist) spiritual states of the individual and collective. It does not pit my mental healthy against physical, nor ethical decisions against pragmatic ones. There is no way in which it is a bad thing, and many ways in which it is a good thing. That is a virtue.

Pride, on the other hand, is a vice. It tells me that I am better than I really am, objectively. This has no beneficial effects (not even on my self-esteem, which is often very low in genuine fact, and merely covered by manufactured arrogance). As the sage Marcellus Wallace put it "Pride can't ever help you. It only hurts." That is objectively bad. It can only act to the detriment of my mental, physical, and (hypothetical) spiritual health, and that of those around me.

And so, if we chop away all other factors for the sake of a thought experiment (as we would be allowed to cut away air resistance or so on in a physics experiment) and posit that I performed an action which was motivated by only pride, that action is objectively bad. You cannot possibly conjure a way to say it was good, save by the greatest stretch of absurdity (an appeal that we must somehow discount the evidence of our senses and experience with reality, all the way down the bunny hole until we're Cartesians again, and can't prove anything past Cogito Ergo Sum). Similarly, if I perform an act solely motivated by humility, that action is objectively good. You can show no way in which it was detrimental.

None of this requires you to acknowledge theism. I would, yes, posit that God is responsible for these essential facts, but he's also responsible for the atomic number of boron being 5. That doesn't require a Bible to prove or believe or act in accordance with.

None of this has anything to do with my "programming". Whether I am biologically driven to be proud, or I chose it with my free will, or I am ignorant of it entirely, or I am a flawed spirit, or whatever the heck motivates it, Pride Is Bad. Don't care what you think about pride. It only hurts, it never helps. And furthermore, it hurts me even when I think it's helping me, and even when I think it sucks to be humble (it is often a bitter pill to swallow) it's always better than being proud. Always.

These are moral constants, they don't change, and they don't even require contextualization (although we could certainly provide hypothetical or actual examples to show them).

Now, bear in mind, this will contradict an ethic where "the Good" is defined as "Avoiding Pain and promoting Pleasure", but that is doubly flawed.

For one thing, vice might promote short-term pleasure (that's what makes it so darn appealing to the short-sighted) but it will still produce deeper, longer-lasting pain. It is both qualitatively and quantitatively worse to BS yourself.

For another, feelings are a great liar. We largely get up in the morning and decide whether to be happy. I got up and said "I'm gonna have a good day", and that's basically a subjective choice of mine. I choose to be pleased by my life, and this does not impinge on my moral choice between, say, cheating on my taxes or not.

An instinct is just a feeling. A feeling is, at best, unreliable. On the other hand, the cold hard facts of virtue and vice show that we can discern between good and evil choices, deductively and conclusively.

If you want to say "Well, then, you've admitted there are no universal absolute standards", I would admit agnosticism on that. I do know that having standards is, in itself, a good thing. We can, for example, draw out statements like "People should be judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin." Show me any possible, valid reason why it would be equally beneficial in any tenable sense not to hold that as a principle. It doesn't make everything cut and dry--you still need to be able to form a judgement about character, and even recognize character in the first place, but I don't think that's asking too much. The character does, after all, exist, and has definite characteristics which we could articulate. "You shall know them by their fruits," as the Good Book says--but it's hardly alone in saying that you can tell whether a thing is X or Y by looking at the outcome. That's pretty standard analytical reasoning, works the same way in empiricism.


Or think of the Marines. There's three ways to do a pushup. The right way (and there's many right ways, and many variants), the wrong way (there's at least as many biomechanically dangerous and incorrect ways to do a pushup as not) and the Marine Way. Now, there is a Marine Way, and it's objective. I could look at you drop and give me 10, and tell you how many (if any) were Marine Pushups. That has a benefit. It gets everyone on the same page, in addition to promoting the same goods as any other pushup. That means you're producing a uniform product, and unit cohesion.

Thus a tribe is justified in having, say, Ten Commandments. For one thing, God could have said "Be excellent to each other", like Bill and Ted, but folks weren't ready for that. You'd get ten million people going "Excellent? What's excellent? Who's excellent? How excellent? Is this excellent, is that excellent?" Kinda like the Greeks. So to settle it, you'd end up going "Okay, fine. Just don't kill each other. Let's write that in stone."

Now, "Thou Shalt Not Murder" is a pretty sound law, as long as it's phrased as "Murder" and not "Kill." Murder, after all, entails a necessary implication of vice in the decision. If I bravely defend my family to the death against marauding bandits, that's not murder. If I fail, and they kill me, that is murder. So it's giving a guideline, but you still need standards and values to go along with it.

Now, I don't hold that it's objectively true that "It's always wrong to torture." I hold that "It's always possible, given sufficient information, to determine whether torture is or is not right." There are extraordinary circumstances for many, many things, if not everything. Now, I would be willing to accept a law that said "Torture is always illegal" as being good, because it's certainly better to outlaw an act which is most likely going to be bad most of the time, rather than to just leave it on the table. We admit that there are times it's okay to speed (in a medical emergency, for example), but that doesn't mean speeding laws should just be thrown out.

So, I'm sorry that I can't prove something I don't believe (some absolute list of rules and guidelines floating in the sky, penned arbitrarily by a bearded tyrant, with no true bearing on what's good or bad for us or our ability to perceive it), but I do believe I can prove something (that Good and Bad exist actually, not just as a matter of perception)--and I have done my best to do so. If you'd care to prove me wrong, go for it.

Bennett:

(After reading this, it's pretty rambly. Maybe best for you to read the whole thing to see the big picture.)

I have already conceded that it is very problematic to make universal, absolute claims about moral standards

That’s what I’ve seen from other Christians as well.

without recourse to "programming", a sly way of saying "biological cognitive determinism" and thus irrelevant to a rational discussion

I’m certainly not trying to be sly or underhanded. If we have a moral instinct programmed into us at birth, and if that explains much of the low-level (Golden Rule, for example) morality that is common across all cultures, so be it. That would just be a fact we’d need to deal with.

whether that instance [of capital punishment] was morally correct

Are we still on the subject of objective moral truth?

I certainly don't hope you're asking me to say that all capital punishment cases are identical.

Of course not. But the capital punishment question is: “Is it ever morally acceptable for society to punish someone with death?” Your question of whether they’re all identical or not is off the mark, at least based on what I think is the interesting question.

"There is such a thing as an objective moral value"

OK. This is interesting but hardly as interesting as those Christians who claim that morality is objectively true and we can we can reliably access it. This certainly seems to me to be a popular idea within American Christians, so I don’t think I’m creating a straw man here.

These Christians want to claim that their moral conclusions are objectively true. That they give no evidence to support such a claim is what I find infuriating. Sounds like you’re not going there, however. Perhaps we can at least agree that this common Christian claim is unsupported?

Humility is necessarily good, because it will cause no harm

Extreme humility (bordering on the negative self-loathing that you’ve already mentioned) could be considered a bad thing. Only if you define it as inherently good can you avoid this.

Your arguments about humility-driven or pride-driven actions being necessarily good or bad may then founder on this requirement that something is defined as good/bad. The argument seems to dissolve into “A good action is good.”

But this isn’t a big deal for me.

You’ve bypassed what, for me, is a key point, that we have a plausible natural explanation of morality. I see no need to posit a supernatural something-or-other to explain the good or bad we see in life.

These are moral constants

Because they’re universal among our species or because they’re supernaturally grounded?

An instinct is just a feeling. A feeling is, at best, unreliable.

OK, but this doesn’t address the issue of how our moral drives are driven by instinct (or not).

I do know that having standards is, in itself, a good thing.

We have moral standards, but again this doesn’t tell us whether they’re supernaturally grounded or not.

Show me any possible, valid reason why it would be equally beneficial in any tenable sense not to hold that as a principle.

Even if we agree on that principle, it could (again) simply be universally held.

Now, "Thou Shalt Not Murder" is a pretty sound law, as long as it's phrased as "Murder" and not "Kill." Murder, after all, entails a necessary implication of vice in the decision.

Right. As a result, the commandment devolves into tautology. “Don’t do killing that you shouldn’t do” isn’t very helpful.

I do believe I can prove something (that Good and Bad exist actually, not just as a matter of perception)--and I have done my best to do so. If you'd care to prove me wrong, go for it.

I don’t know that I exist, but I have no interest in arguing this narrow interpretation. It’s good to see that we agree on some things.

GU,

To clarify, I'm not attempting to say that American Christians are right about all the moral claims they make. They probably aren't.

For that matter, I don't contend that we have no moral instinct. What I argue is that whatever means we use to interpret right and wrong is not the thing in itself.

You seem to be making an argument that amounts to "Morality is perception." This is tantamount to saying "A picture is perception." No, it's not. A picture is a picture. It's oil on canvas. The picture is the picture, and your means of interpreting it relies on several things--a sense of aesthetics, your vision, your memories, your cultural context, and so on. But those things don't create the object--they interact with it.

I get what you're trying to contend. That morality might just be an illusion. We have some little genetic tic in our head that makes us think X is moral and Y is not--and that this is all that there is to the matter. That X and Y are in fact amoral, and we only *call* them moral because we're tricked into doing so by our delusional brains.

But that doesn't correspond to reality. In reality, virtue promotes regeneracy and vice promotes degeneracy. I'm not arguing pragmatism, but I'm saying that the existence of evidence for morality's efficacy regardless of our "blinders" shows that it's really there.

Now, Christians may very well be wrong to make assertions like "All abortions are evil." I don't care if you think that's a more interesting question--what you find interesting may have no bearing on the truth.

"“Don’t do killing that you shouldn’t do” isn’t very helpful."

Quite right. The statement in itself is not helpful, because it is decontextualized. As I pointed out myself, it relies on being able to view the circumstances and relevant facts to determine whether a murder took place. "Murder" isn't even a helpful concept if we cannot figure out where or when one took place. But we can, and people make their living doing just that. The point of having Commandments wasn't to establish that Things 1-10 were immoral. It was to establish that these were the Shared Values We Take Seriously As A People--Or Else

"You’ve bypassed what, for me, is a key point, that we have a plausible natural explanation of morality."

Depends what you mean by "morality." If you mean that we have a plausible natural explanation for why people got together and said "We'll punish people for doing this and reward them for doing that," then no duh. People get together and decide things all th time. Our senses don't determine the objects which they perceive. They merely see them. We can see right and wrong, that doesn't mean we can just make it up as we go. People try that al the time and get burned, it's a fact of life.

"I see no need to posit a supernatural something-or-other to explain the good or bad we see in life."

I didn't ask you to. In fact, I very specifically promised not to throw the Moral Argument at you. You seem very hung up on this idea that morality--and all the rest of reality, perhaps--must be potentially illusory, because you don't believe there is a God.

But Ayn Rand, Michael Shermer, Siddharta Gautama, and a number of other folks have no problem saying morality is objective. In fact, the first and the last persons on the short list do a pretty decent job outlining why they think so.

How about this: I argue that gravity is an objective (albeit relative) fact. You, in turn, must argue "I see no reason to suppose a supernatural grounding for gravity, so it must be a trick of my biology. What we call gravity could just be what we evolved to think gravity is, and in fact there's no force at all--things just work that way because. We have a plausible natural explanation for why objects go down instead of up, and no need to call it objective." Can you hear how incoherent that reasoning sounds?

Again, I don't give a rat's tail whether you believe in God. That's between you and him (if there is a him--or a you. Or a me to say this.) That belief has no bearing on whether morality actually exists.

You seem to think I'm trying to present a case for Christian Theism, or Absolute Moral Laws In The Form of Capitalized Imperative Statements.

I'm not.

If you don't think the discussion's interesting, after all that qualification, that's fine. Interest, after all, really is subjective. ;)

That morality might just be an illusion.

Morality as an objective “out there” kind of thing would be an illusion, yes. But even if that were true (my position), morality still exists. Still makes sense to talk about it. It still has a place in the dictionary. And so on.

That X and Y are in fact amoral, and we only *call* them moral because we're tricked into doing so by our delusional brains.

Again, there’s no trick. It’s simply the case (IMO) that this is what explains our moral impulses. The explanation doesn’t change how we feel about these impulses.

I'm saying that the existence of evidence for morality's efficacy regardless of our "blinders" shows that it's really there.

Sure, we can tally up good and bad results based on an action. I don’t see how this changes things.

Now, Christians may very well be wrong to make assertions like "All abortions are evil."

They can certainly say that, and I have no problem with them doing so. But there’s an implied caveat “… based on my perception of the matter.” This tells us from what platform this statement is coming. But of course that applies to any moral statement that any of us would make.

I don't care if you think that's a more interesting question--what you find interesting may have no bearing on the truth.

What I find interesting has a bearing on what conversations I have time for—that’s all I’m saying.

Depends what you mean by "morality." If you mean that we have a plausible natural explanation for why people got together and said "We'll punish people for doing this and reward them for doing that," then no duh.

Is there anything left in the field of morality that demands a supernatural being as an explanation? The answer is No IMO.

I didn't ask you to. In fact, I very specifically promised not to throw the Moral Argument at you.

Uh, OK. I’m simply saying that I’d like to know whether you see any reason to posit a supernatural being to explain morality.

You seem very hung up on this idea that morality--and all the rest of reality, perhaps--must be potentially illusory, because you don't believe there is a God.

Not really. I’m arguing that morality can be explained naturally. Do you agree?

But Ayn Rand, Michael Shermer, Siddharta Gautama, and a number of other folks have no problem saying morality is objective.

Then I disagree with them.

Can you hear how incoherent that reasoning sounds?

I guess, but that’s not what I’m saying. We have a natural explanation for gravity; we have a natural explanation for human morality. That’s all I’m saying.

"We have a natural explanation for gravity; we have a natural explanation for human morality."

There's a difference. What you have is a plausible-sounding hypothesis of why humans behave morally, but it has no proof. There is no evidence. There's scads of evidence for gravity, it's proven. Your "moral instinct" supposition has no basis in fact.

I could just as easily say that you have a "physicalist instinct" that causes you to think that physicalism is true, and act accordingly. Then you could say "Oh yeah, well you have an instinct that makes you say I have an instinct" and I can say "Well, you have an instinct that makes you say I have an instinct that makes me say you have an instinct" and on and on we go into an infinite regress.

You have literally no evidence that your pet theory is true in reality. It sounds neat on paper, but how does it work?

I have never, at any point in this discussion, said that we have to posit a supernatural entity to explain morality. Where did you even get that?

And in fact, what relation does "a supernatural being" have on whether something is objective? A thing is objective if it's real, and not imaginary or fictive. You don't say that evolution is imaginary or fictive because there's no supernatural explanation. The car in my driveway isn't "supernaturally transcendent", but its existence and function are objective. What the heck sources this little bit of special pleading on your part, that somehow morality needs God, or Al'lah, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster in order to be "Objective", unlike the nose on your face, or mathematics, or logical reasoning, or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair?

I'm truly baffled why you interject the two, they have no logical relationship that I can discern. It really just reads like you're phobic that if you admit that morality exists, so does God. So you'd rather assert that reality is somehow subjective or unreal, rather than experience some other cognitive dissonance along the way. But you're just creating a much more troubling contradiction in so doing.

What you have is a plausible-sounding hypothesis of why humans behave morally, but it has no proof. There is no evidence.

Science doesn’t prove anything. As for evidence, this isn’t my thinking; it’s popular within biology. I don’t know if it’s the consensus view, but that’s my guess. We see morality in other primates; if instinct explains it in them, why can’t the same be true in humans?

There's scads of evidence for gravity, it's proven.

There’s scads of evidence for the existence of gravity, just like for the existence of morality. The explanation of gravity, however, is a different, hazier story.

Your "moral instinct" supposition has no basis in fact.

I offer a plausible natural explanation. The Christian proposes a supernatural explanation. Which one wins?

I have never, at any point in this discussion, said that we have to posit a supernatural entity to explain morality. Where did you even get that?

And I have never told you that you do. I’m talking about a rather popular Christian concept—surely you’ve heard of this idea.

I'm truly baffled why you interject the two, they have no logical relationship that I can discern.

I suspect you’ve heard of the Argument from Morality for God’s existence. That’s what I’m talking about. If you have no interest in discussing this, that’s fine.

It really just reads like you're phobic that if you admit that morality exists, so does God.

Put your concerns at rest. Morality exists. However, I see no reason to imagine that God does.

"I suspect you’ve heard of the Argument from Morality for God’s existence." Dude. I mentioned the Argument from Morality several posts back. More than once. So that's a pretty plausible "suspicion" there.

"Morality exists. However, I see no reason to imagine that God does."

I already knew both of those things; the existence of morality, and that you are an atheist. It's nice to hear you admit the former, though.

"Science doesn’t prove anything."

Really now? Maybe we have different ideas of what "proof" means.

"The explanation of gravity, however, is a different, hazier story."

Quelle vrai.

"I offer a plausible natural explanation [of morality]."

Which is fine, except that it has no basis in fact. Defense attorneys offer "plausible" explanations of how their client slipped and accidentally stabbed his wife 31 times in the chest.

"The Christian proposes a supernatural explanation. Which one wins?"

Well. I'm a Christian. I didn't offer a supernatural explanation. So who is "The" Christian you have issue with? The one you find easier to argue with, because he's wrong? That's cool. I think Christians are wrong about stuff all the time.

"I’m talking about a rather popular Christian concept"

Well, there's your whole problem. You're talking about Christians, or around Christians, or through Christians. How many Christians do you actually talk to? Ten? A hundred? A thousand? A million? Even if it were the latter number, that's still less than a twentieth of the total population.

The existence of moral absolutes is not a central Christian doctrine. I know saying that would shock all sorts of folks.

Central doctrines include the Trinitarian God, Christ's Crucifixion under Pilate, his death and subsequent resurrection, the Ascension, the Final Judgement, the Church, the communion of Saints, forgiveness of sins, the bodily resurrection, and eternal life.

Now, if you can shoot down any of that stuff, then you're contending with Christianity as a whole. Otherwise, you're picking people who aren't trained (or possibly even very good) at formal logic or moral philosophy, pointing out that they're wrong about certain things, and then saying "QED, Christianity is wrong." I'm sorry, but how does me being wrong about whether abortion is a sin affect the bodily resurrection? How does the Trinitarian God affect whether capital punishment is a crime? If the Garden of Eden is a metaphor and there's no real talking snake, does that change the forgiveness of sins?

Now, I'll darn sure assert that there needs to be a supernatural cause for almost all of the stuff in the Creed. That's what makes it, yanno, the Creed. But I don't require you to believe the Creed--you're quite within your rights to reject it. A big part of Christ's message is that people have a choice, and cannot be coerced. We're just to shake the dust off our sandals when we're done with you.

But don't mistake rejecting people with poor reasoning skills for having disproven any of those central doctrines. And if you haven't disproven those, then your rhetorical tapdance is a hollow victory, vis a vis Christianity.

Dude. I mentioned the Argument from Morality several posts back. More than once.

Then I don’t understand your allergic reaction against my mentioning supernatural causes.

Maybe we have different ideas of what "proof" means.

Apparently. Proof is limited to mathematical or logical conclusions. Science doesn’t prove anything (though it may well provide very, very strong evidence). Science is always provisional, which is why the argument “Scientists are always admitting they were wrong!” is off the mark.

Defense attorneys offer "plausible" explanations of how their client slipped and accidentally stabbed his wife 31 times in the chest.

You mean “possible” explanations? I agree. But I also think that biology would agree that my sketch of the natural origin of human morality is not only possible but plausible as well.

I think Christians are wrong about stuff all the time.

Sounds like we’re on the same page. My focus from the start of this discussion has not been to show that Christianity is nonsense but that the natural explanation of morality is sufficient and there’s no need for a supernatural explanation for morality.

GU,

There is, of course "a" natural explanation of morality. Just as there is "a" natural explanation of how water boils. But an explanation has no more explanatory value simply by dint of being "natural" rather than "supernatural." If I said "water boils because I leave it in sunlight" that's actually not a better explanation than "water boils because magic gremlins make it". Both are just wrong.

That's my point with your "biology sufficiently explains morality" issue. It isn't that it's natural/supernatural, it's that it's implausible for reasons of its very own. The moral instinct may influence how we behave, but that is only a sufficient evidence that it has a role in moral reasoning. However, you must show that this cause is both sufficient and necessary to explain morality entirely, and that no other cause is either sufficient or necessary. Otherwise, there remains an open question.

How--and I mean specifically--does this moral instinct work? Where on the brain is it located? What experiments have shown its existence? If it is natural, I'd expect someone (maybe start with Sam Harris, he does love his CAT scanner) to have demonstrated it in some fashion. These are ground points to even begin to offer it as an explanation for anything, which haven't been expounded. You say it "seems popular" with scientists, but don't appear prepared to articulate it past that. If you can't explain how or what is, beyond "popular with biologists", why on earth are you basing a significant part of your worldview on what may be shifting sands?

I'm not talking about throwing God into the equation. I'm just talking about actually having an equation. Saying that "this theory is popular in biology so nothing else is necessary" isn't even wrong.

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