About three months ago (wow, how time flies), I was writing a series about Richard Carrier's attempted rebuttal of J.P. Moreland's argument on Morality found in his book Scaling the Secular City. (Carrier's original essay can be found here and the first part of this series can be found here, the second part can be found here, and the third part can be found here.) I took the position that Moreland’s argument on Morality was unscathed by Carrier’s rebuttal. In the process, we discussed whether there was any humanistic alternative basis for morality. One reader, Bruce, made what I considered to be one of the better arguments for a basis for humanistic morality that I have seen, and I promised him I would give it a response. Well, three months have passed and I thought I had better do it before I completely forget.
Here is what Bruce wrote:
Secular humanists have still another reason to be moral, which I personally take to be the most compelling in my own life, and it should be no less compelling to Christians. We naturally hate those who lie, cheat, murder, and steal; we hate those who are intolerant or insolent or malevolent in some way. This is simply a natural emotion arising from the human constitution. After all, such people represent a threat to our own survival and well being, as well as to that of our family, friends, and all those whom we care about, and this includes not just people, but ideals and institutions. But this hatred is felt not merely for those who threaten us or our loved ones -- it is felt for anyone who embodies malevolence. For we react this way even to fictional characters who can never harm anyone in the real world. The very idea of villainy is repugnant to us. Even the real villains among us try to paint themselves as heroes, more I believe to deceive themselves than to deceive others. People who actually want to be evil, as opposed to those who are evil but want to believe they are good, are not only rare, they can also be called monsters, for whom no argument of any kind could ever persuade them to become truly good -- even if God himself rebuked them. In the very same manner, we love those who are benevolent, honest, or otherwise virtuous -- fictional or not.
Because of this natural moral sentiment, whether inborn or learned (or both), whenever we act like those we hate, we will be faced with a psychological dilemma. We will be forced, on some level of our being, to hate ourselves. Even if we try to take steps to hide from this fact, as I believe most villains in the world do, we cannot avoid deeper psychological ramifications. Self-hatred, self-defeating hypocrisy, perpetual dissatisfaction with the world and ourselves, even outright madness will creep upon us, as history and personal experience shows. And once we have seen the truth about ourselves, even the option to hide from it no longer exists. Our self-loathing will then become direct and profound. It is those who have achieved this state of mind who truly know what it means to ask others how they can sleep at night, or how they can live with themselves, after doing something personally loathsome.
I certainly appreciate the time and thought Bruce must have put into your system of morality, and there is a certain surface appeal to this viewpoint. Thus, I want to write this as a sort of open letter to Bruce explaining my reason for disagreeing with his position.
You and I agree that lying, cheating, murdering stealing, intolerance and malevolence are wrong, and this instinctive agreement gives credibility to your viewpoint. (I’m not so sure that insolence rises to the same level, but I am certainly happy that you believe it’s wrong to be impertinent.) The fact that we share these beliefs show that while we disagree on many things, we both agree that intentionally harming those with whom we disagree by word or deed is immoral. That’s good.
However, to say that we’re in agreement on the end result of your system is not the same as saying that we’re in agreement as to how you got there. It is similar to the fact that we both know that the dinosaurs went extinct many millions of years ago, and speculating about the cause of their extinction. If you believe the extinction was caused by a meteor impact, and I believe it was caused by global cooling unrelated to such an impact, then the fact that we are in agreement to the fact that things ended doesn’t mean we’re equally correct in explaining how we arrived at that end. In your case, I am not sure that you have done anything more than engage in circular reasoning.
Here, in a nutshell is your reasoning: we hate people who act immorally because we recognize it as wrong. What is the basis for this recognition? You attribute as either “inborn or learned (or both).”In other words, you never give any type of basis for this recognition -- it just exists. But that’s the problem.
You see, we both agree that it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, murder, etc. But your effort simply examines and accepts it as a given. Where did it come from? At first, you justify your identification of these things as immoral by saying that it risks both you and your family's survival and well-being (not just the people themselves, but ideas and institutions). But then you (rightly) abandon this reasoning by saying it goes deeper to a natural repugnance of malevolence. Of course, “malevolent” is a loaded word -- in its ordinary understanding it means "evil". Evil is not a neutral word. Evil assumes that there is such a thing as good and evil, and that is not readily apparent if the universe is not created within some universal moral framework. So, when you say we hate those who embody malevolence, such a statement seems to me to be a major case of begging the question.
In effect you are pointing to the symptoms, but ignoring the disease. I can point to a person with a stuffy nose and a sore throat and conclude that they have a cold without having any understanding as to what causes a cold. That is what you have done. You say that we hate villains, and that we will not sleep at night when we do things that are loathsome, but that doesn’t go to the heart of the question raised by the argument from morality -- why are these things loathsome or villainesque?
Christianity poses a reason for these feelings: there is a God who, as part of his perfectly good character, epitomizes morality. He created mankind and put His law into our hearts in such a way that even those who deny Him and His existence recognize when they are acting contrary to His good and perfect will. Thus, we feel bad inside when we act immorally because we know that we have violated the will of a good and perfect God (even while we may deny that such a good and perfect God exists).
Your attempt, on the other hand, suffers from the same problem as every other humanistic attempt to identify a basis for morality that I have seen -- it acknowledges what Christianity acknowledges (the intuitive knowledge of right and wrong) but fails to give any basis for why that feeling exists. It isn’t merely learned otherwise morality is relative to what a person is taught. In such cases, it is impossible for someone to claim that any other society did something immoral because they were simply acting according to the morality of that society. The very idea that society decides what is moral seems a little awkward to me given the number of things that societies have largely accepted as moral. Child sacrifice was seen as moral in some cultures. Cannibalism has been seen as moral. Prostitution has been seen as moral. Hatred of others has been seen as moral. Feeding people to the lions for entertainment has been seen as moral. And these were not individual cases. They are practices that have been repeatedly accepted time and time again throughout history. Thus, on what basis do you say that your morality in these areas is better than theirs?
Morality, to be what you describe, has to be inborn, but that is where humanistic explanations break down. There is no evolutionary basis that can explain the rise of an absolute morality that is written on our hearts.
I want to encourage you and anyone who reads this to consider more deeply why we consider certain things to be immoral over time. Why can we look back on societies that engaged in child sacrifice or didn’t punish rape or the institution of slavery in the Southern United States and call them immoral in an ultimate sense if there is no ultimate morality? Even the arguments that people have been throwing at me concerning the annihilation of the Amalekites in the book of 1 Samuel cannot be seen as somehow morally repugnant unless there is first an acknowledgement that there is some type of universal morality that the Israelites violated! So, what is the basis for your morality that is both absolute and timeless?