CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

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.

Bruce,

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?

7 comments:

Hi BK,
At essense, I think morality is about values. If we place value ourselves, our family and our friends, we will be inclined to dislike and oppose any threat or harm toward them, and like and applaud anything that will bring happiness, prosperity and health to those we value. Thus, we oppose malevolence (ie people who seek to bring harm to others) and uphold benevolence (ie people who seek to help others).

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
You've got that exactly backwards BK. Malevolent is a well-defined word within a moral system of the kind Bruce and I hold: It refers to people with intentions of bringing harm to others. "Evil" is a second-order word within our system, it gets its meaning from malevolence. ie we find it useful to define the word "evil" such that someone is "evil" if and only if they are malevolent. No appeal to any God-standards of good and evil is therefore required to determine if something is good or evil, it is only necessary to refer to a persons intentions. If I say "you are a good person", then in my mouth that phrase means nothing other than that you are a benevolent and loving person who is kind and compassionate toward others. Similarly if I was to say "it’s wrong to lie, cheat, steal, murder, etc", what those words would be meaning to me as I said them was that it is malevolent to do those things and I am opposed to malevolence, because I personally value benevolence because I value people.

Andrew,

Good to hear from you. I understand what you're saying, but the idea that you are espousing is a type of the minimalist ethic, i.e., your right to swing your fist ends at the end of my nose; however, if you swing your fist with the intent to hit my nose, you are acting immorally. But that simply doesn't work in my view.

For example, suppose that a person's value is that the gods smile down on them which requires child sacrifice to those gods. On what basis can you say that's immoral if you don't believe in an absolute morality? After all, if you "oppose malevolence (ie people who seek to bring harm to others) and uphold benevolence (ie people who seek to help others)", then is that person acting malevolently or benevolently? In his view he is acting benevolently, isn't he?

BTW, I disagree with your effort to redefine malevolence. My definition comes straight from the dictionary, to wit, malevolent is defined as (from WordNet):

1. wishing evil or harm to another or others; showing ill will; ill-disposed; malicious: His failures made him malevolent toward those who were successful.
2. evil; harmful; injurious


Now, if you say that it's "a well-defined word within a moral system of the kind Bruce and I hold", then I'll agree that you can redefine it however you want. But I am using the word as it is plainly defined.

But even using your definition, I still don't see how you can find the person engaging in child sacrifice to be acting immorally if his intentions are benevolent.

I find it quite useful to make a distinction between actually causing harm and intending to cause harm. A person can intend harm without sucessfully causing it, or cause harm unintentionally. I take it that this is what you are getting at with the nose example. If I intend to hurt your nose, I am acting malevolently. But if I hurt your nose without intending to, then I have not acted malevolently - though I have perhaps acted carelessly and if I am benevolent I will try to take more care in the future.

For example, suppose that a person's value is that the gods smile down on them which requires child sacrifice to those gods. On what basis can you say that's immoral if you don't believe in an absolute morality?
I observe the fact that it is a non-benevolent act toward the children involved.

I disagree with your effort to redefine malevolence.
I'm quite happy with the dictionary's definition. What I am trying to draw to your attention is that in my view what is important is malevolence/benevolence. My system of morality, my understanding of good and evil, how they work and what they are, is founded on the fact that people have benevolent or malevolent intentions. People can act out of a wish to harm or a wish to help. Whether an act is done out of a desire to benefit or hurt the parties involved is an objective standard. As a result a factual objective description of their actions and intentions exists.

The words I am interested in redefining are words that go beyond mere description and imply a value-judgement: like "good", "evil", "right", "wrong", "moral", "immoral". I use these words to refer to a basic benevolent/malevolent view of intentions outlined above. I value benevolence and oppose malevolence, and therefore my value-judgement upon a benevolent action is that it is "good" and my value judgement on a malevolent action is that it is "evil". If someone does something with an intention to harm others I would observe the intention is malevolent and therefore would oppose it as being "wrong" and "immoral" since it is against my values. By using words like "wrong" and "immoral" to describe it, I mean nothing other than that it was an act performed with malevolent intentions. The root problem is that the offender has failed to value other people in the way I value them.

First, I was trying to make clear that your viewpoint was a minimalistic-type ethic which involved intent, so I don't have a problem with your distinction in the first paragraph.

Second, I accept your explanation of our disagreement of the definition.

Third, and most importantly, I don't think substituting words makes the issue any less value laden. I return to the fact that the person attempting to commit child sacrifice in my example has absolute benevolence in mind.

Finally, I also wonder if you would give a basis for valuing people that is divorced from God. I you say at the end, the problem is "that the offender has failed to value other people in the way I value them." Now, I believe people have value because they are created in the image of God and God has imbued them with value. Is there some independent reason that a person has to value people the way you do?

I was trying to make clear that your viewpoint was a minimalistic-type ethic which involved intent
I think you are slightly mistaken here. My ethic is based on values, which are used to judge intent. You can use those same values to judge results also, as I said above. But it is usually useful to distinguish intents from results.

I return to the fact that the person attempting to commit child sacrifice in my example has absolute benevolence in mind.
Factually speaking, child sacrifice is not a benevolent act: It harms the child. If the person has harming and helping confused, they would appear to be insane. Perhaps you mean a situation where insanity is not involved, such as where a normal person performs some action thinking they are helping a child but as a result of some of their beliefs being factually incorrect the child is actually harmed by their action. In such a case my analysis is as follows. The person is a good person, namely they are benevolent, value others, and as a result of such values perform their action intending to benefit others. Their mistaken factual beliefs result in their action not having the desired effect. They would therefore themselves judge the results of their action to be unfortunate and bad. They have good intentions but end up with bad results.

I also wonder if you would give a basis for valuing people that is divorced from God
Bruce already gave one to you.

I believe people have value because they are created in the image of God and God has imbued them with value
I don't think that answer works at all. It simply begs the same question: why should we value them? You say God values them - so what - why should we value something just because God values it? Your answer doesn't seem to even begin to address the question it supposedly answers.

At the end of the day the choice of what to value is up to us, as individuals. Some people value themselves highly and don't value others much at all, and are happy to harm and hurt others. Some people value others as highly as themselves are desire the best for others. Some people value God far more highly than themselves or other people and strongly value doing what they think God tells them. Some value the customs of their people highly, they value conforming to social norms, and they think that is more important than God or the welfare of other people or their own welfare. What each person sees are right and wrong, good and bad, is going to flow out of the things they value.

Let me see if we can get some clarity here.

1. I don't see where your approach is different from the minimalistic ethic I was describing, so let me try it again. I see your viewpoint as saying that what is moral is dependent upon whether a person intends to hit my nose. In other words, a person can do whatever they want as long as they don't attempt to hurt me or my family or ideas or institutions, etc., etc., because if a person seeks to hurt any of those people/things, they are acting malevolently. Is that your viewpoint?

2. Your dismissal of my child sacrifice example adds another element to the picture because it appears to say that a person isn't acting benevolently regardless of their intent to act benevolently if what they are doing is harmful in reality. Is that correct? How do you reconcile that view with the answer to paragraph 1?

3. Bruce did not give me a basis for valuing people. He simply said we value them, and that seems to be what you have done, too.

4. As a theist, don't you agree that God is the beginning and the end, the alpha and omega, the source of all that is truly right, good, just, etc.? If so, if God isn't valuable, then nothing is valuable. If we value God and view Him as someone who loves things that are worthy of love, then it follows quite obviously that those things have value, does it not?

5. I agree that we can choose to value whatever we want, but that doesn't answer the question as to why others should choose to value those things that we value. I value Coca-cola, for example, but I don't expect anyone else to do so. However, we expect everyone to value human beings but you give no basis for that valuation (and neither has Bruce).

1 & 2: I see a difference between intending harm, and actually causing harm. Both are undesirable. These are two, quite distinct, parts to what I would call "morality". You seem to be conflating these two things which is causing you confusion - try to resist the urge to merge the two.

For example when you say "a person isn't acting benevolently regardless of their intent to act benevolently if what they are doing is harmful in reality" you are confusing benevolence-of-intent with the actual results of the action. In this situation a person with a morally-right intent to help performs an action which results in harm. Obviously, if the benevolent person had known the harm their action was truly going to cause they would not have performed the action. So the intent was morally-right, but the unfortunate results were not morally desirable.

3. Bruce did not give me a basis for valuing people.
We generally value those whom we love. And thus we value benevolence in those who interact with people we love. That was Bruce's point.

4. As a theist, don't you agree that God is... the source of all that is truly right, good, just, etc.?
No I don't agree, and that's why we're having this discussion. God has little relevance to morality, and it is simply a mistake to think he does. God is benevolent, but he does not somehow define benevolence, any more than a road that is 1 mile long defines what a mile is. God, because he is benevolent, commands and desires humans to act benevolently.

I think we're talking past each other in our discussions of "value". You speak of things having inherent value and being inherently worthy of love. You treat value as if it were an objective attribute of an object like size or shape or colour. I am not at all prepared to agree that there is any such thing whatsoever as inherent value. Imagine that there was - why would anyone care about it? I don't prefer "green" objects over "red" ones, I don't prefer "square" objects over "round" ones, I don't prefer "large" objects over "small" ones, so why would I prefer "valuable" objects over "valueless" ones? (Not to be confused with my preference for objects with socially-assigned economic/monetry value!) In my mind, value is just something we subjectively place on things.

5. I value Coca-cola, for example, but I don't expect anyone else to do so.
Exactly. I value benevolence, but I am well-aware that plenty of people in the world do not share that value. I think the world would be a much nicer place if everyone did share that value, so I try to promote it.

I don't understand what you mean when you say "we expect everyone to value human beings"... Clearly there are plenty of people in the world who do not greatly value human beings, eg there are wars, genocides, murders, slavery etc aplenty which indicate a widespread lack of value being given to human beings, so if you "expect" people to value others in the sense of "anticipating that they do" then you are wrong. Do you mean you would like and desire everyone to value humans? So would I. Do you mean you think there is a logical reason why people should value others?

That last one has a more complex answer. Clearly if a person places value on themselves, there is a logical reason for them to desire benevolence in others. Thus, such a person, logically, ought to value benevolence in others and dis-value malevolence in others. If a person places value on their family and friends, then logically they ought to value benevolence in those people who interact with their family and friends. However, if a person values nothing, no amount of logic can convince them to value something, as logic can only draw inferences from one set of values to their logical consequences, it cannot make up values out of thin-air. (There's a famous philosophical theorem that demonstrates this, generally known as "an 'is' does not imply an 'ought'")

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