Monday, July 28, 2008

Beyond Mere Atheism - Pt. 2 - Some elementary remarks about "objective" morality

"Is what is moral commanded by God is because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?"

-Plato, The Euthyphro, 5th century BCE

Before we can begin to dig into the meat of what an atheist moral philosophy might look like, it is perhaps worth taking a short detour to discuss some common theistic claims to rule the roost of morality and ethics.

This series of essays, titled “Beyond Mere Atheism” is not really intended to refute the various claims of theists. Indeed, as I suggested in the introduction, atheists have long allowed theists to frame and define the debate for us. The time has long since come, I think, for us to define our own turf on our own terms.

However, it is an inescapable fact that theism, in its Christian form in the west, has long claimed to be the authority on all things moral and this claim has, by in large, been accepted with little or no debate. And in anticipation of theist objections to future essays on this subject, I think it worth while to examine this claim if for no other reason that we can safely box it up and put it away.

Consider the recent debate on Youtube for example. There some theists have used the moral argument as proof of God’s existence and wield the argument as a kind of magic bullet that slays atheists in a single shot.

The argument goes like this: in order for moral and ethical standards to have any meaning whatsoever, and to have any authority on people whatsoever, they cannot spring from human minds. No human being has any intrinsic authority over another to enforce moral behavior. Further, we fickle humans can change our minds and therefore our morality is merely relative and implusive. What is required is an “objective” source of morals that has authority to enforce it, is unchanging and is, above all, extra-human. (hence why they call it objective morality.) That is, it comes from a supernatural source.

Lets examine what they mean by the “objective” source of morality. What they really mean is that their view of their particular god is that source. But this is argument really sound?

Consider what the theist has to do in order to support the claim that their god is the objective source of morals and therefore we ought to obey said deity. By my estimation for this claim to be taken seriously they must, at minimum, met four conditions:

1) Demonstrate there is a god.

Now, at this point I am not saying they have to prove their particular god exists, but instead just show that a god, any god, could exist. On this point it is important to say they cannot use the moral argument for god, because then they will just whip around in circular reasoning: “God exists because there are morals. Morals exist because God does.” That doesn’t get very far.

Most theists, at least those not those bound to fundamentalist thinking, will likely turn to the ontological or teleological arguments for god’s existence. These arguments are by no means conclusive, and have been refuted. But for our purposes here, we can say they are open to debate.

But let us grant them these arguments for the moment. What they have demonstrated by them is, at best, the deist view of a god as the original creator of the universe, but who takes no interest in its goings on, never mind human affairs. So even granting them this argument they have not proved their case. There is more work to do.

2) Demonstrate the god that exists is the god they believe in.

Having presented a case that a god exists, they have then the huge task of demonstrating that it’s their god that is the one handing down objective moral standards to us poor slobs. Remember, the moral argument itself is not sufficient, because it results in circular reasoning. Moreover, the moral argument itself does not present us with the identity of the god in question. Is it the Christian Trinity? Allah? Yahweh? The Great Spirit? The moral argument does not say. These gods are specific, with specific personality traits and a history and chosen prophets and so on.

I haven’t a clue how a theist would be able to demonstrate that the god demonstrated in point one is the one they happen to worship. They would, I assume, turn to scripture. But each religion has it own scripture, each claiming to be the truth and none of them possess a way to demonstrate the others are false beyond saying “because my holy book says so.”

Why is this second point important? Well, according to the theist, particularly of the Abrahamic variety, god’s morals standards have been explicitly handed down. We don’t know them by instinct (and if we did what would suggest a material source of morality as a product of evolution, which defeats the moral argument for god altogether.) So god handed down his or her or its orders via ancient texts. So if we are to take the claim that god is the source of moral standards seriously, we are going to natural ask, “which standards?” which is to say “which god?”

3) That the identified God has authority over human beings

If by some miracle, if you will excuse the phrase, we actually got this far, the theist is faced with another condition to meet. Where does this god fellow get his authority over us?

This is a question I have asked many theists, and have never actually received a useful answer. Some will claim god has authority over his creations by virtue of being the creator. In other words, we have to do what god wants because god made us. It is a peculiar argument and one we do not accept in our ever day lives on (drum roll please) moral grounds. Consider, parents literally “create” their children through sex. However, we do not regard the authority of parents over children to be absolute. There are things we do not allow parents to do to their children. For instance, we regard it as immoral for parents to beat or harm their children. We do not allow them to kill or imprison their children. Indeed one of the very few legitimate reasons for the state to interfere with religious practice is if someone is being harmed, particularly children. So merely being the “creator” of something does not grant authority over the creation.

This is particularly true of the modern west which long ago dismissed with concepts of absolute rulers. Indeed, the kind of “creator control” suggested by some theists is, by any definition, a dictatorship, which runs counter to every concept of freedom we posses.

So if that doesn’t work, what else is there? Well, some use a variant of this argument and say we should obey the moral dictates of god because if we don’t, god will punish us. In the case of the Christian/Jewish/Muslim god, that punishment entails torture forever in some sort of Hell.

This argument fails on two points. First, as Plato explained to us long ago in the Republic, might does not make right and justice never belongs to the stronger party simply because they are the stronger party. In modern terms, we reject the very idea of authority that rests upon the threat of violence. Indeed, a government whose entire authority does rest upon the threat of violence is considered illegitimate.

In fact, the justification for a god’s authority of human beings is unclear at best and, in point of fact, merely assumed in most theology. But if we are to accept the moral argument for god, then we need more than an assumption. We need a legitimate explanation for god’s authority.

4) Are the standards issued by the god in question actually moral?

Having come this far down the garden path, the theist is left with one last challenge. Are the moral standards issued by god actually moral? And if we reject some or all of them as immoral, then the entire argument falls to dust.

In the dialogue, Euthyphro Plato poses the question this way: “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”

If the first conclusion is true then the entire moral argument for god is rendered inert. It would imply that god orders that which is intrinsically moral – and if that is so then what makes those standards moral has nothing to do with god. He merely recognizes their moral character. Therefore there is no extra-human source of morality, or if there is it isn’t god.

If the second is true, then morality is not objective at all as the theist defines it. It is an extra human morality, but not objective. The whims of human beings is replaced by the whims of a supernatural agency. Anything and everything god orders is moral by definition. That means that any horrible act can be justified simply by saying “god said so.”

This argument, if accepted, leaves the theist – particularly Abrahamic believers – in particular moral pickle. Take the often cited Christian idea that god is “love.” He is omi-benevolent and does issue orders we recognize as moral such as “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not bear false witness.” Some Christians, for example, will go so far as to say that god would never issue a command that was not moral.

Well, even a glance at the Bible raises some serious questions. University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson in her essay “If God is dead, then everything is permitted?” points out that “if we accept biblical inerrancy, I’ll argue, we must conclude that much of what we take to morally evil is in fact morally permissible and even required.”

She points to several occasions, complete with chapter and verse references, in which god’s behavior is by any definition of morality that we hold true today, utterly and completely immoral. Her list is long but a mere glimpse of what is in the bible, so I will not quote it in its entirety. A small portion will do. (You can find the complete essay in the anthology “The Portable Atheist” edited by Christopher Hitchens.) Anderson writes:

“Consider first God’s moral character, as revealed in the Bible. He routinely punishes people for the sins of others. He punishes all mothers by condemning them to painful childbirth, for Eve’s sin. He punishes all human beings by condemning them to labor, for Adam’s sin. (Gen. 3:16-18). He regrets His creation and in a fit of pique, commits genocide and ecocide by flooding the entire earth. (Gen. 6:7) He hardens Pharaoh’s heart against freeing the Israelites (Ex. 7:3), so as to provide the occasion for visiting plagues upon the Egyptians, who, as helpless subjects of a tyrant, had no part in Pharaoh’s decision. (So much for respecting free will, the standard justification for the existence of evil in the world.) He kills all the firstborn sons, even of slave girls who had no part to play in oppressing the Israelites(Ex 11:15). He punishes the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of those who worship any other god. (Ex. 20:3-5). He sets a plague upon the Israelites, killing 24,000, because some of them had sex with the Baal-worshiping Midianites (Num. 25:1-9)…He sends two bears out of the woods to tear 42 children to pieces because they called the prophet Elisha a bald head. (2 Kings2:23-24)…”

One can add to this list, as Anderson does, the several ethnic cleansings ordered by god, ordering a father to murder his own son as a test of loyalty, and the sanction of slavery including beating slaves to death provided they live for a couple of days after the beating.

All of this, and more, we consider fundamentally immoral. Christians, however, will sometimes argue that, yes, this is all pretty horrible. But along came Jesus and everything improved. Now, it is true that for much of the New Testament God appears to have mellowed out and doesn’t spend a lot of time destroying cities and ordering the taking of sex slaves. But the good times don’t last. God requires a human sacrifice to “forgive” the sins of the world, and come the Book of Revelation, its back to old school blood letting and genocide and Jesus, armed with a sword, personally executes non-believers. As Anderson writes:

“Death is not bad enough for unbelievers, however; they must be tortured first. Locusts will sting them like scorpions until they want to do die, but they will be denied the relief of death. (Rev: 9:3-6)”
So what can we conclude from this orgy of violence and general behavior that would be categorized as evil by Christians in any other context? For one we can dispense, easily, with the notion that god’s orders are moral because they came from god. Which brings the theist back to the conundrum of Plato’s second option – if not god, then whence come morality? Why does any normal person recognize the actions of god as described in the bible as utterly immoral if anything done by god is moral by definition?

A typical objection will be to say that we cannot judge god. If that is so then we are utterly incapable of recognizing immoral acts when we see them, meaning the entire notion of an extra-human objective morality is pointless – we are too damn dumb for it to have any impact on us at all.

If however, we regard the texts as reflections of the time in which they were written, where the moral standards we hold today were simply not in effect, then we realize there is nothing “objective” about any of it. The morals of thousands of years ago are not the morals of today. What a Christian believed to be ordered by god 200 years ago is not what a Christians believes in 2008. The zeitgeist changed and for most of us living in the West, it changed for the better.


Dasun said...

Great post. No thinking person can read this and disagree with you. These points come in real handy to me in my frequent debates with my colleagues in university. Thanks.

Spontaneous Order said...

Nice job. Particularly like how well written your final point is. Also, think this point takes us off defense and puts us on offense - where we need to be on this argument. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up with revulsion whenever a Christian cites the creator/creature distinction as if they have just played some sort of logical trump card.

If permitted, let me add a few observations:

If God has engraved His law on Christians’ hearts, they are in no position to assert whether God’s moral code is good or bad. Their view is through God tinted glasses.

Apologists play a clever game of misdirection when they define God’s moral code as objective. They assert objective means free of human evaluation – wink, wink - , when a better definition would be free of all intelligent evaluation – God included. How do we determine whether homosexuality is immoral or if God is merely a homophobe?

I think it is fair play to point out that an absolute moral code would speak to ALL moral questions not merely a few obvious points – with obvious real world harm. So Christians where/how does your moral code speak to these gray area questions? Christers – vegetarianism? Theft to feed your family? Lying to hide Jews from Nazis? Income distribution?

Finally, I think we need to sharpen our argument when Christians claim our morality is unworkable. There is in their view no middle ground between God’s perfect moral code and all is permitted. They depend on our observations to support their position that at least on some questions – the moral code appears to be absolute. Yet some how their logic fails them; when we point out that those same observations can be used to develop a moral code by more earthly means. If indeed an absolute moral code was created by God, we now know what God did for the eternity before He created man – He was busy writing.

Quantum_Flux said...

You're awesome!

Please tell the McCain/Palin Campaign (preferrably politely) why teaching creationism in our public schools around America is superstitious and is not in our nation's best interests. These are the feelers McCain has out there, the way in which Americans can have a voice and be heard by his campaign:

Contact his campaign directly here:

Or go to his blogs and leave a polite message about the subject matter wherever appropriate:

Remember, McCain does a lot of things right and is a great heroic war veteran who genuinely puts his country first, but Creationism is one key area where he is completely wrong and could potentially create a major setback for American students and businesses. We can't let America fall behind foriegn countries in the departments of Science and Technology because of his superstitious beliefs.