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April 5, 2008 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Why do theists bring up morality when arguing for the existence of god?

Whenever I am arguing with a believer about the existence of god, they inevitably bring up morality. Their view being that for there to be any morality, it must be derived from an ultimate authority. This makes no sense to me. Obviously our sense of morality has changed through out history, so what reason is there to believe that such a thing as absolute morality exists? Why can’t morality be based off of reason, human solidarity, and the desire to limit human suffering?

Just because it would be nice if there were absolute moral laws to live by, doesn’t necessarily make it true. Something being pleasant does not say anything about its truth value, a fact that I find theists often ignore.

That said, let’s assume god does exist and you are a believer, why bring up morality? How could anyone have any idea what god wants us to do? Unless god is speaking to you directly, your personal morality is as made up as anyone else’s. Religious texts, which are supposedly the word of god, are full of things that modern society deems morally abhorrent(slavery, sexism, child abuse, racism, etc.), so they are irrelevant when talking about morality.

Thanks!
posted by wigglin to Religion & Philosophy (97 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yeah, this question is a mess. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of issues raised by your question. This, for example, is fallacious:

Obviously our sense of morality has changed through out history, so what reason is there to believe that such a thing as absolute morality exists?

To wit: obviously our sense of physics has changed throughout history, so what reason is there to believe that such a thing as absolute physics exists?

If you want to clarify your thinking about these questions, I suggest you read up on the Euthyphro Dilemma, then take a class on metaethics.
posted by smorange at 4:57 PM on April 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Before this thread explodes, I'll recommend Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, which explores your point.
posted by stereo at 4:59 PM on April 5, 2008


For a theist, the problem with a morality based off of "reason, human solidarity, and the desire to limit human suffering" is that human beings are made the ultimate authority on moral issues. That is a pretty unpleasant thought, for several reasons:

1. People are wicked, immoral creatures much of the time. Why should they be endowed with the right to judge the morality of others? "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone..."

2. People are self-interested, and often define morality in a way that benefits them.

3. Those three foundations for morality are vague and can be stretched to justify all sorts of regulations that many people would be uncomfortable with.

4. It is difficult to find an adequate morality based on "reason," where "reason" is not used simply for rhetorical support. Is that the Kantian categorical imperative? It has serious problems. Can we find an adequate enough definition of "reason" to fit as serious of a subject as morality?

The theist's alternative is to posit a lawgiver who is perfectly moral, objective, disinterested, omniscient, and omnipotent. Sacred texts or properly accredited individuals precisely express the lawgiver's commandments, which ideally leave no room for doubt or error. Your problems with these two methods, which are self-evident to you, are not as dangerous, to a theist, as the problems of the alternatives.

(You've phrased this question in an axe-grindy way that might make it difficult for you to get good answers--for instance, for a theist it's far from obvious that sacred texts are irrelevant. I'm an atheist, and I was still rather put off by your tone. Consider rephrasing.)
posted by nasreddin at 5:01 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's no reason the thread has to go South as long as everyone remains respectful.

I've also been puzzled by this, wigglin, though I wouldn't say it's something all theists believe. (I am a theist but never imagined that morality derives from a belief in God).

When I've had this conversation with people who do believe there is a causal connection between morality and religious belief, they tend to say that it's because their denomination discusses and espouses certain values that they find lacking in the rest of the culture. In many cases, they can't imagine encountering and learning to practice those values outside a religious context or without religious training. In imagining their lives without the structure provided by religious tradition and authority, some may tend to imagine a life without any moral guidance at all. So it can seem that the two are related. The fact that moral guidance came so obviously from the church, and referred back to the church, may have created some confirmation bias, as well. So even when they encountered acts of goodness based on morals, they may have ascribed the existence of the goodness to an ultimate source in God.

Of course it's true that there is no reason people without a belief in a divine power do not have the same access to and propensity to moral reasoning. They certainly do. There are any number of things to base moral reasoning on; divine authority is one, but so are the desire to conform with social norms, sheer pragmatism/utilitarianism, a belief in the fundamental equality of all individuals, avoiding negative consequences, etc. But if you have spent most of your time considering moral questions in a churchly context rather than outside of it, it's easy to assume that only that church environment is concerned with moral questions. Religious institutions are personally very powerful, working as they do with all the tools to sway individuals: invocation of divine authority, sense of community and belonging, ritual and repetitive practice, lifelong relationships, and theological inquiry. For people who have been raised with religion, it becomes very hard to separate one's own individual personal development and moral growth from all that powerful religious training.
posted by Miko at 5:03 PM on April 5, 2008 [8 favorites]


Nasreddin, excellent points about the view of corrupt humanity. I hadn't taken that into account. But of course, the problems of humanity plague church members and leaders as well. The ideal of a morally perfect divine being exempt from the weaknesses of humans is a good argument for grounding moral thought in religious belief; it's like reasoning from a Platonic ideal.
posted by Miko at 5:08 PM on April 5, 2008


Just because it would be nice if there were absolute moral laws to live by, doesn’t necessarily make it true. Something being pleasant does not say anything about its truth value, a fact that I find theists often ignore.

You've got a big part of your answer right there. Many folks can't or won't distinguish between what seems likely to be true based on evidence and reason and what they would very much like to be true.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:16 PM on April 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


But of course, the problems of humanity plague church members and leaders as well.

Right, but assuming that God has any interest at all in the affairs of humans, He would presumably see to it that His representatives on Earth are by and large able to communicate his instructions tolerably well despite their failings. At least, that's what I'd argue if I were a theist.
posted by nasreddin at 5:19 PM on April 5, 2008



You've got a big part of your answer right there. Many folks can't or won't distinguish between what seems likely to be true based on evidence and reason and what they would very much like to be true.

How is this relevant to the question? Moral claims are neither true nor false outside of the proper context for evaluating them, which for a theist involves God. (I'm assuming you're not just saying "LOLXIANS.")
posted by nasreddin at 5:22 PM on April 5, 2008


I think that would be a really tough argument to make - you don't have to look far to find morally corrupt clergy members. This is a real weakness in the argument, because if clergy were thought to be specially empowered by God to carry divine messages, then why do the powers so often not protect them from committing acts which are morally wrong? It seems to me that the argument for God's moral perfection has to assume imperfection for all humans, not just for non-clergy.
posted by Miko at 5:22 PM on April 5, 2008


I think I'd have plenty of commentary on this question if I stopped to really consider it, but I'm going to take the easy option and agree with stereo, which is that you should go out and read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which deals quite well with some of the issues you raise...
posted by ranglin at 5:23 PM on April 5, 2008


you don't have to look far to find morally corrupt clergy members.

But the very fact that we recognize them as corrupt undermines your point.
posted by smorange at 5:25 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


How is this relevant to the question? Moral claims are neither true nor false outside of the proper context for evaluating them, which for a theist involves God.

It's directly relevant to the question. I think it's clear that the sort of argument at issue is not a good argument for belief, and the question is why people offer it as one. My answer is to concur that it is in some part wishful thinking, which plays a significant role in human psychology.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:26 PM on April 5, 2008


I think that would be a really tough argument to make - you don't have to look far to find morally corrupt clergy members. This is a real weakness in the argument, because if clergy were thought to be specially empowered by God to carry divine messages, then why do the powers so often not protect them from committing acts which are morally wrong? It seems to me that the argument for God's moral perfection has to assume imperfection for all humans, not just for non-clergy.

I think that (at least for a Christian) the ability to sin is integral to salvation. So God might intervene to ensure that His commandments are communicated, but He would see any control over humans' (and the clergy's) obedience to those commandments as an unacceptable imposition on free will.
posted by nasreddin at 5:27 PM on April 5, 2008


Nasreddin, I did not intend the tone of this post to come across as incendiary. I apologize if that is how it seems. I was just asking a question about something that was on my mind. I respect all different views, and if I'm asking questions it is only out of curiosity.

"for instance, for a theist it's far from obvious that sacred texts are irrelevant."

If a sacred text allows slavery, or even mentions it with out condemnation, isn't it fair to say these texts are irrelevant when discussing morality in a modern society? This seems obvious to me, but if it comes across as rude, again, I apologize.
posted by wigglin at 5:27 PM on April 5, 2008


It's directly relevant to the question. I think it's clear that the sort of argument at issue is not a good argument for belief, and the question is why people offer it as one. My answer is to concur that it is in some part wishful thinking, which plays a significant role in human psychology.

I think it's as good an argument as any, but condemning the side that advances it as deluded does not help us understand it in any case, whether or not it's couched in pseudo-scientific language. Only if people make a good-faith effort not to bring LOLXIANS into it will this thread turn out at all well.
posted by nasreddin at 5:31 PM on April 5, 2008


No, it's not fair to say the texts are "irrelevant." They may be used for historical discussion, to contrast new divine messages with old, or to draw larger points about God's actions and thoughts.

nasreddin, thanks for the further thought, I get you now.
posted by Miko at 5:31 PM on April 5, 2008


If a sacred text allows slavery, or even mentions it with out condemnation, isn't it fair to say these texts are irrelevant when discussing morality in a modern society? This seems obvious to me, but if it comes across as rude, again, I apologize.

There are several different tacks a theist could take with respect to that question:

1. We have been interpreting the text incorrectly, and now we are coming to understand it better.

2. That part of the text is descriptive, narrative, or expository, rather than directly instructive, so we should understand it as being superseded by more direct instructions offered elsewhere.

3. Assuming that you mean the Old Testament--the New Testament supersedes the old in all cases, so those old instructions no longer apply.

Finally...
4. Modern society is wrong, the sacred texts are right. Though this might be unpalatable, it's not a prima facie reason to reject theistic morality.
posted by nasreddin at 5:37 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, I agree with smorange. If you feel that there haven't been good faith responses to your questions, there is quite a range of good reading out there that attempts to answer the question about morality with or sans God that will give you a fair reading of either side.

Just a few comments though:

Why can’t morality be based off of reason, human solidarity, and the desire to limit human suffering?

Some would argue that a divine lawgiver is necessary to explain the objective and non-arbitrary reality of certain moral truths that all people everywhere would affirm; such as it's always wrong (in an objectively true sense) to torture babies for fun. Many would argue that we know that this is a true fact, and haven't simply been conditioned to believe that it's true. Reason and good intentions alone seem insufficient to account for these kinds of moral features. Hence, the question is raised where objectively true moral facts are grounded. To be universal truths for all places and all times, some would argue that certain moral facts must also be immaterial. God, being immaterial, is a natural extension of this discussion; and to avoid one of the horns of Euthyphro's dilemma, theologians have traditionally grounded moral truths in God's unchanging character.

Additionally, ethicists have pointed to the is/ought distinction. How you get from a purely physicalist description of certain events (the way things are) to a type of moral obligation (what one ought to do) is a tricky one. And most would argue that moral obligation is a necessary feature of a fully realized ethical theory. This leads to the question of what would create a genuine, binding obligation on human behavior, and not simply a "twisting of arms" through a social contract (if you think morality requires or describes, fundamentally, something more than this). Whether or not one agrees with the answer, the question of God naturally falls in here.

Religious texts, which are supposedly the word of god, are full of things that modern society deems morally abhorrent(slavery, sexism, child abuse, racism, etc.), so they are irrelevant when talking about morality.

I'd also recommend doing some good theological reading that talks about hermeneutical approaches to religious writing, as often texts that describe certain realities about human nature aren't necessarily endorsing them.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:38 PM on April 5, 2008 [4 favorites]


If you really want to understand why a hypothetical theist would raise the issue of morality as an argument for belief, then you need to reverse the direction of your thinking and try to see it from that theist's perspective:

1) Morality derived from the word of God.
2) Atheists don't believe in the word of God.
3) Therefore atheists have no basis for morality.

It's as simple as that. You may disagree with them, but from their perspective, it seems quite obvious. Morality to this hypothetical theist is not simply a set of rules and beliefs to be followed. Morality is the very essence of their Savior. You cannot both reject and partake of God in this view. Morality is, to them, by definition, a Holy-owned subsidiary.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:41 PM on April 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


No, it's not fair to say the texts are "irrelevant." They may be used for historical discussion, to contrast new divine messages with old, or to draw larger points about God's actions and thoughts.

I didn't mean to say that the texts are not worth discussing at all in this conversation, just that they serve no use in terms of acquiring ideas about what is moral in the modern world.

And if a theist does not get his moral teachings from the sacred texts, where does he get them? Wouldn’t it be the same place that everyone else gets them, whether they believe in god or not?
posted by wigglin at 5:41 PM on April 5, 2008


I think it's as good an argument as any, but condemning the side that advances it as deluded does not help us understand it in any case, whether or not it's couched in pseudo-scientific language. Only if people make a good-faith effort not to bring LOLXIANS into it will this thread turn out at all well.

As good an argument as any for what, exactly? Atheists can be moral, and so it's demonstrably untrue that one needs belief in a deity to be moral. In actual fact most theists do not take their moral beliefs directly from scripture, and in practice have very similar moral beliefs to most atheists, which further shows the flaws of the position in question.

As an argument for the existence of God the fallacy is inescapable -- maybe God exists and maybe not, but the idea that morality would be different or impossible in a world without a God, which is the crux of this position, tells us nothing either way.

I didn't use the word deluded, I merely pointed to a psychological factor which seems to be at play in this kind of thinking. Social psychology points to many such cognitive biases and fallacies (confirmation bias for one) which don't indicate that those who might fall prey to them are deluded. And please stop saying LOLXIANS.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:44 PM on April 5, 2008


Atheists can be moral, and so it's demonstrably untrue that one needs belief in a deity to be moral.

You're begging the question.
posted by nasreddin at 5:45 PM on April 5, 2008 [3 favorites]


You're begging the question.

Both sides of this argument are begging the question.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:48 PM on April 5, 2008


Morality is, to them, by definition, a Holy-owned subsidiary.

*swoons*

In actual fact most theists do not take their moral beliefs directly from scripture, and in practice have very similar moral beliefs to most atheists, which further shows the flaws of the position in question.

Yet again, here's the opposite, equally plausible, argument: In actual fact, most atheists take their moral beliefs from theists, who have derived them from scripture. That's why atheists have moral beliefs that are so similar to theists.
posted by smorange at 5:48 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


No I'm not. The point of contention here is not "is it possible to be moral without belief in God?" I would've thought that was fairly obvious. Studied have shown that theists and non-theists tend to have similar moral beliefs in practice. I'm sorry that I don't have a link to the data.

Yet again, here's the opposite, equally plausible, argument: In actual fact, most atheists take their moral beliefs from theists, who have derived them from scripture.

Except that the moral beliefs held by most theists in the modern world do not align very neatly with those espoused by scripture.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:50 PM on April 5, 2008


One reason why this is brought up is the popularity of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, which used an argument from a universal moral sense to posit the existence of God. Lots of people have been influenced by Lewis, directly or indirectly.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:52 PM on April 5, 2008


Their view being that for there to be any morality, it must be derived from an ultimate authority. This makes no sense to me. Obviously our sense of morality has changed through out history, so what reason is there to believe that such a thing as absolute morality exists? Why can’t morality be based off of reason, human solidarity, and the desire to limit human suffering?

The mind longs for certainty. Most (all?) of us want to feel validated that our choices are 'correct'. When there are high stakes riding on a particular belief, e.g. mutilation of sex organs, punishment of a thief, appropriateness of preying on those outside the group, etc. no one is satisfied thinking that the given standard could just as easily go the opposite way. We want confirmation, or at least the feeling of it. Many religious folk come to hear revelation (not the book of the Bible, but rather revealed knowledge) and to have a view on what one is 'supposed' to do. And they have a point, these shared beliefs on how to act are what ground a community.

You can not derive morality from reason. Reason will allow you to evaluate an argument, but it doesn't give you the starting propositions. Those are presupposed and as such can not be justified. So, two choices, the presuppositions are human and therefore mutable, relativism, or they come from beyond and are eternal, moral absolutes. There are other more nuanced positions, but this is a common way of framing the disagreement. Morality could be based off “human solidarity, and the desire to limit human suffering”, but there is no inherent for why it should. And when the rubber meets the road is when someone is told to act against their own desires because of a moral code. Rules that are perceived to be arbitrary do little to dissuade someone intent on, say, revenge.
posted by BigSky at 5:54 PM on April 5, 2008


Except that the moral beliefs held by most theists in the modern world do not align very neatly with those espoused by scripture.

Jesus taught that the most important things were the love of God and the love of other humans, taking care of the needy, and treating people the way you would like to be treated. Those are the major elements of a Christian morality. Yes, I know the scriptures are accepting of slavery or inhumane treatment during war, but those are outliers compared to what Christ and the prophets considered central to the faith. I don't think there is a big conflict here between modern and scriptural ethics (in part, I think, because modern ethics have inevitably been influenced by the Christian tradition.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:56 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


Someone else already pointed this out, but if you want to really delve into this debate you need to realize that this is not a valid argument:

"Obviously our sense of morality has changed through out history, so what reason is there to believe that such a thing as absolute morality exists?"

I'm not saying there is absolute morality. Maybe there is; maybe there isn't. But you haven't provided a good argument that there isn't. It's an entirely open possibility that there is a single, absolute, true morality that people are just really bad at figuring out -- hence the variety of people's actual moral views. (Compare: if you think 2 + 2 is 4, and I think 2 + 2 is 5, that doesn't mean there's no single correct answer to what 2 + 2 equals.) As I said, maybe that's wrong, but it is a possibility to be confronted, not just dismissed by saying that there are a lot of moral disagreements in the world.

And yes, to echo what others have said, AskMetafilter is not a productive way to solve this problem. Try the bookstore or library -- look in the philosophy section, then specifically look for introductor books on ethics, and they'll probably bring up religious arguments.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:58 PM on April 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


No I'm not. The point of contention here is not "is it possible to be moral without belief in God?" I would've thought that was fairly obvious. Studied have shown that theists and non-theists tend to have similar moral beliefs in practice. I'm sorry that I don't have a link to the data.

I think this argument is precisely about that. Something like:

P1. God exists.
P2. All moral claims rest on divine judgment.
P3. Divine judgment is expressed through certain texts or people.
.: P4. All moral claims are to be evaluated by reference to said texts or people.
.: P5. If P1-P3 are false, no evaluation of moral claims is possible.
.: P6. Someone who doesn't believe in P1-P3 is unable to evaluate moral claims.
P7. "Morality" depends on being able to accurately evaluate moral claims.
.: C. Someone who doesn't believe in P1-P3 (i.e., an atheist) is unable to be moral.
posted by nasreddin at 6:01 PM on April 5, 2008


I wouldn't say it's something all theists believe.

This is true. Not every view of God includes a role as a moral lawgiver. For example, at the critical end of deism, you find general rejection of revealed religion, and deism in general relies on human moral reasoning.

There is also some theological thinking that more or less presents God as moral not because he's the lawgiver who defines morality, but because he is a being who has apprehended underlying natural moral law. Inside of this I've observed some examples of people who still believe humans rely on God in much the same way as if he were the ultimate lawgiver, and some who believe humans have the ability to apprehend moral law on their own.

But while those are probably important technical points, Miko's answer is the one that gets at the heart of the matter.
posted by weston at 6:03 PM on April 5, 2008


Yes, I know the scriptures are accepting of slavery or inhumane treatment during war, but those are outliers compared to what Christ and the prophets considered central to the faith. I don't think there is a big conflict here between modern and scriptural ethics (in part, I think, because modern ethics have inevitably been influenced by the Christian tradition.)

The dominant ethical sensibilities of modern western societies have indeed been influenced by Christianity, but it is well-established that most believers don't take scripture literally and that they hold many moral views which contradict the examples and commandments set forth by scripture. And of course there are many who profess belief in Christianity but do not take care of the needy or shun wealth, who take the lord's name in vain, who work on the sabbath, etc. That is not to say that scripture doesn't influence the ethics of some believers or that it is not one reference for moral-decision making, but I think it's clear that it is not the sole reference. And I don't think that there is universal agreement as to what are the major or necessary elements of Christian morality.

P1. God exists.

Now that is begging the question. In the first line of this post, the OP says:

Whenever I am arguing with a believer about the existence of god, they inevitably bring up morality.

He is talking about someone providing an argument for the existence of God. The conclusion is supposed to be "God exists." You can't assume that God exists in your first premise.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:08 PM on April 5, 2008


It goes like this:

1) God is smarter than people
2) People need to be told how to live
3) "Morality" is this set of rules passed down (by various methods) from God

In other words, morality is group-ethics.
posted by rhizome at 6:10 PM on April 5, 2008


Both sides of this argument are begging the question. [Quoting myself]

To elaborate: Either there is an absolute moral authority, or there isn't.

If there is, then said authority, by definition, gets to decide whether it's enough to simply follow the example, or whether one must also be a member of the club to lay claim to Morality (cap M). I can say the pledge all I want, I can do all the activities required to earn merit badges, but ultimately it's the BSA that gets to decide if I'm a Scout.

If there isn't an absolute moral authority, then for morality to exist in any context at all, it must have been man-made, and is therefore up for grabs.

So to some degree, this is really just a game of semantics. To the theist as posited in the original question, the ultimate authority is a given, and therefore Morality belongs to God. The question is begged. Man doesn't get a say. To the atheist, God does not exist, therefore we can compare the beliefs and behaviors of theists and atheists and define morality (small m) however logic dictates. The question is begged.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:11 PM on April 5, 2008 [2 favorites]



He is talking about someone providing an argument for the existence of God. The conclusion is supposed to be "God exists." You can't assume that God exists in your first premise.


As I see it, it's an indirect pragmatic Pascal's Wager-esque argument for holding a belief in the existence of God in the absence of definitive evidence against it: not believing in God leaves you unable to evaluate moral claims, so you may as well believe in God to have access to morality. You could, for instance, remove premise 1 and substitute "If God existed, all moral claims would rest on His judgment" for P2.

Obviously, I don't think it's a great argument, or I would be a theist, but I think it's about as good as all the others.
posted by nasreddin at 6:15 PM on April 5, 2008


is it possible to be moral without belief in God?

I've always found this to be something of a strawman, really, as most ethicists that look at the logical relationships between theism, atheism, and morality don't argue this way. The question isn't whether or not it's possible to be moral without God (the answer is obviously yes), but whether or not there is genuine obligation to be moral. If one thinks that moral obligation is a necessary and important feature for a fully realized ethical theory, and a system cannot establish this in a meaningful and non-arbitrary way, it's not too crazy to ask if this is an unpleasantly slippery slope to be standing on. Of course, theists as well as deists can ignore moral obligation, even if it were established. Theists can be immoral with God. Atheists can be moral without God. Neither of these is really the question, though. It's the question regarding the connection between actions and obligation; and if it's a necessary moral feature to prevent social damage, which explanations bests establishes it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:17 PM on April 5, 2008 [2 favorites]


Except that the moral beliefs held by most theists in the modern world do not align very neatly with those espoused by scripture.

Except that the presupposed belief that each individual has an essential worth separate from their capabilities and status in society, comes to us from Plato's depiction of the soul as delivered through Christianity. Plato's Meno makes a compelling case for what one of my professors called 'ontological equality'. Without that strand woven into our culture, women, members of other races, and the disabled would all be considered little more than livestock. It hasn't been universally acknowledged by all cultures. That atheists, for the most part, accept it now, shows the extent to which it is assumed. It is the 'patriarchal, oppressive' West, that by suggesting there is such a thing as an eternal moral truth, made it possible to have this moral vision which both theist and atheists share. Not that there's anything special about this time and place, for the most part I suspect doubters have always bought into their society's moral conventions. You have to start somewhere.
posted by BigSky at 6:21 PM on April 5, 2008


To the theist as posited in the original question, the ultimate authority is a given, and therefore Morality belongs to God. The question is begged. Man doesn't get a say. To the atheist, God does not exist, therefore we can compare the beliefs and behaviors of theists and atheists and define morality (small m) however logic dictates. The question is begged

Again I think you are misidentifying what the question is. "God exists" is a hypothesis put forth by the theist, on whom the burden falls of defending that assertion. "Absolute morality cannot exist without God," even if true, is not a good argument in support of that hypothesis. The argument hinges on the implication that this the lack of absolute morality is a highly undesirable outcome due to the common human need for certainty and absoluteness, as I said in my first answer and BigSky said with more words in his best answer. One doesn't need to be an atheist in order to see that.

As I see it, it's an indirect pragmatic Pascal's Wager-esque argument for holding a belief in the existence of God in the absence of definitive evidence against it

That's not how I interpret the argument or how I think the question framed it. But Pascal's wager is similarly fallacious as an argument for God's existence.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:22 PM on April 5, 2008


Except that the presupposed belief that each individual has an essential worth separate from their capabilities and status in society, comes to us from Plato's depiction of the soul as delivered through Christianity. Plato's Meno makes a compelling case for what one of my professors called 'ontological equality'.

Perhaps you could elucidate this some more? In the Republic Plato suggests that we should be just not because a deity or scripture commands it but because unjust behavior causes internal disharmony. And what does a strand of Platonic thought evident in modern western ethics say about the argument in question here?
posted by ludwig_van at 6:30 PM on April 5, 2008


"God exists" is a hypothesis put forth by the theist, on whom the burden falls of defending that assertion.

This is a common response to theism, but in reality, the burden lies on the one making the assertion regarding a state of affairs about the world. When Dawkins asks Christians to stop being unreasonable regarding God's existence, he is suggesting a different state of affairs about the world that they should adopt. Granted, he's doing it indirectly by discrediting his opposition. But he isn't saying stop trying to convert me, as you haven't given me good evidence, and it's your obligation to do so. He's definitely on the offensive to establish the viability of an alternate worldview.
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:39 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


That said, let’s assume god does exist and you are a believer, why bring up morality? How could anyone have any idea what god wants us to do? Unless god is speaking to you directly, your personal morality is as made up as anyone else’s. Religious texts, which are supposedly the word of god, are full of things that modern society deems morally abhorrent(slavery, sexism, child abuse, racism, etc.), so they are irrelevant when talking about morality.

Okay, well are these people trying to make a case why god exists, or are they trying to explain to you why they are religious? Because in the first case, it seems weird to bring up absolute morality as proof of the existence of god. But in the second case, it makes sense to use "A clear(ish)ly defined morality" as a selling point of religion. Some people like knowing what is definitely right and what is definitely wrong.
posted by 23skidoo at 6:39 PM on April 5, 2008


I find it extremely notable how many people have responded to this question under the assumption that "believer" = Christian. It makes me wonder whether:

A) this is simply a factor of there being more Christians on MeFi than other types of believers
B) the vocal Christians believe their religion alone defines morality in the modern age (see nasreddin's mildly offensive rationalization #3)
C) Bhuddists, Jews, and Muslims don't tend to get into this argument with atheists
D) other

I'm legitimately curious, not trying to LOL anyone.
posted by nadise at 6:47 PM on April 5, 2008


Again I think you are misidentifying what the question is. "God exists" is a hypothesis put forth by the theist, on whom the burden falls of defending that assertion. "Absolute morality cannot exist without God," even if true, is not a good argument in support of that hypothesis.

I'm not misidentifying the question, you're missing my point. I clearly stated they were begging the question. Which means it is not a good argument.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:48 PM on April 5, 2008


the burden lies on the one making the assertion regarding a state of affairs about the world. But he isn't saying stop trying to convert me, as you haven't given me good evidence, and it's your obligation to do so. He's definitely on the offensive to establish the viability of an alternate worldview.

This is not so. The fact that Richard Dawkins or any other atheist is actively trying to change people's minds about something nothing to do with it. The onus is on the person suggesting an explanation for a phenomenon (for instance, those who offer God as an explanation for the existence of life, the universe, and all other mysterious natural phenomena) to demonstrate why their explanation is the best one.

If someone was skeptical about heliocentrism, or the existence of dinosaurs, or whatever, the burden would fall on me, the believer in those theories, to demonstrate why they best explains observable phenomena, and I'd (theoretically) be able to do so.

I clearly stated they were begging the question. Which means it is not a good argument.

I know what begging the question means. I clearly don't disagree that the theist position is a bad argument. I disagree that the atheist position is necessarily begging the question.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:50 PM on April 5, 2008


Some points from The Philosophy Gym by Stephen Law (pp104-116):

The argument that things are right and wrong because God says so is called the 'divine command theory'. It's fatally flawed, and many well-known theists have rejected it outright, including St Thomas Aquinas and Gottfried Leibniz. The argument usually goes something like this:

Things aren't right or wrong because we say so. Things are right or wrong because God says so. If morality depended entirely on our own judgments, then morality would be unacceptably arbitrary and relative (in which case, things like murder can be 'right' simply because somebody believes it to be true). This is clearly unacceptable. Morality, therefore, stems from the divine, and therefore God exists.

Plato, in his dialogue the Euthyphro, pointed out a flaw in this argument. You can express the flaw in the form of a question:

Are things wrong because God says so, or does God say they are wrong because they are?

This raises a dilemma for the theist. If God says things are wrong because they are, then God isn't required to make things wrong - there is a standard of right and wrong that exists independently of God's will. The 'divine morality' case against atheism collapses, because atheists are free to help themselves to the same independent moral standard.

On the other hand, if things are wrong because God says so (that is, he makes them wrong by decree - if He, for example, decreed killing to be good, then it would be so), then morality is still entirely arbitrary and relative - a situation which the theist deems to be unacceptable.

The argument can be dragged out by appealing to the following 'arguments':

- "God is good, so his arbitrariness and relativity are so infinitely better than ours that they aren't really arbitrary or relative at all";

- "We must follow God's commands";

- "Well, we could never be good if God wasn't waiting to punish us" (a favourite of Voltaire - theists are more likely to be good than atheists); or

- "You atheists wouldn't know how to be good if we theists didn't show you how".

They're all wrong.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:51 PM on April 5, 2008


the vocal Christians believe their religion alone defines morality in the modern age (see nasreddin's mildly offensive rationalization #3)

I can't see why it would be offensive. It is an answer theists could make, and many would make, if they happened to be Christian. If not, they wouldn't. What's the problem?
posted by nasreddin at 6:54 PM on April 5, 2008


Why can’t morality be based off of reason, human solidarity, and the desire to limit human suffering?

Reason (1), rationality, is often seen as a matter of determining means, not as something that determines ends. As Hume said, "Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger." As for human solidarity (2), why should I have it if I happen, in fact, not to? As for "the desire to limit human suffering" (3), the same question holds: if I do not happen to have this desire at a particular moment, why should I? How does normativity enter the picture? (It's not impossible for an atheist to explain normativity, but these are the sorts of concerns that might ground a debate about theistic ethics.)

Just because it would be nice if there were absolute moral laws to live by, doesn’t necessarily make it true.

No, but if our moral practice assumes absolute moral laws, and these absolute moral laws presuppose God, then while this doesn't necessarily prove the truth of God's existence it does give us a reason to believe in God, and not necessarily a bad one. Something of this sort of argued by Kant: we can't know anything about God's existence one way or the other, but we have to assume the postulate of God's existence to make sense of our moral practice.

You seem to think that atheists have to be moral relativists. This, to my mind, would be an argument against atheism. Have you ever tried to be a moral relativist in real life? If someone stones a woman to death for showing her leg, can you really think "well, that's just how they do things, it's a different culture?" And what if it was your mother -- would you still think that? And are we allowed to condemn the Holocaust, or would this be the imposition of our values on a different culture (the German culture of the 1940s)? And more to the point, if we in our culture condemn certain practices in other cultures, then even according to moral relativism our condemnation is at least at legitimate as their practice, so who are you (the relativist) to ask us to stop acting like absolutists? So if moral absolutism is the only coherent way of upholding moral opinions, and if the only way to found an absolute morality is on God's will, then this would be an argument that we should all become theists, even if it's not an argument that belief in God is true in a theoretical (non-pragmatic) sense.

How could anyone have any idea what god wants us to do?

This is probably the best argument you've offered. However, certain theists might want ot argue the other way around: what's your alternative? You're going to base your ethics on what you want to do? That's pretty self-serving.

(I am an atheist.)
posted by creasy boy at 6:59 PM on April 5, 2008


In summary: morality is not just a matter of your personal preference -- it's hard to imagine a morality that's not intended as absolute, i.e. not conceived as objectively right. We feel that our moral opinions are absolute, or else they wouldn't be moral opinions but something else, like opinions about taste or personal preference. I hold torture to be morally wrong, and that means that Mr. Yoo's opinion is not just a different opinion than mine -- no, he's wrong about it. So if morality has to be conceived as absolute, and we have to have morality, the question is: where does the absoluteness come from? It's not impossible to have an atheistic absolute morality, but setting it up is a more subtle piece of work.
posted by creasy boy at 7:08 PM on April 5, 2008


I can't see why it would be offensive. It is an answer theists could make, and many would make, if they happened to be Christian. If not, they wouldn't. What's the problem?

Because it dismisses someone else's religion (Judaism) as irrelevant, rather than just being another valid religion you may not choose not to believe in. It also suggests that anyone who still believes in the Old Testament can't be moral because they don't have the new rules that now apply. There are some Christians who believe the New Testament is an addendum to or evolution of the Old Testament, not a contradiction. That view isn't even mildly offensive.

I know you didn't mean to trash anyone's religion. It just shows a thoughtlessness that sometimes comes with being a part of the dominant cultural group.
posted by nadise at 7:09 PM on April 5, 2008


The atheist position is necessarily begging the question if you are the literalist theist on the other side of the argument. The atheist positions under discussion require comparative analysis which necessarily derive from the proposition that identical beliefs and behaviors are morally equivalent theism notwithstanding. In my experience, this proposition is not generally acceptable to literalist theists because it is negated by their own question-begging proposition that Morality is equivelant to devine will, not merely behavior. And hence the eternal stalemate.

I'm not arguing for either of these positions, you understand. I'm describing my view of one reason they never get anywhere with persuading each other.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 7:12 PM on April 5, 2008



Because it dismisses someone else's religion (Judaism) as irrelevant, rather than just being another valid religion you may not choose not to believe in. It also suggests that anyone who still believes in the Old Testament can't be moral because they don't have the new rules that now apply.


Wait, what? I wasn't defending that view. I was putting it forth as an option. That doesn't mean I endorse it! Take it up with St. Paul.

I know you didn't mean to trash anyone's religion. It just shows a thoughtlessness that sometimes comes with being a part of the dominant cultural group.


I'm an atheist of Jewish origin.
posted by nasreddin at 7:12 PM on April 5, 2008


C) Bhuddists, Jews, and Muslims don't tend to get into this argument with atheists

As far as I know, the existence of God is not a central idea in Buddhism. There are a lot of deities in various sects, many of which are derived from indigenous religions, but it seems that these deities generally do not play a significant role in Buddhist philosophy.
posted by extramundane at 7:17 PM on April 5, 2008



Fellow atheist of Jewish origin here. Funny, that. :)

I was reacting to the statement itself. I did get that you weren't saying it was your belief, but that didn't make it any less brusque to read. Sorry to have assumed that you were Christian because you wrote it.
posted by nadise at 7:18 PM on April 5, 2008


As far as I know, the existence of God is not a central idea in Buddhism.

Right, that's why they wouldn't get into the "morality comes from God, therefore atheists are immoral" argument with atheists. Who knows if/why Jews and Muslims would or wouldn't...
posted by nadise at 7:21 PM on April 5, 2008


Creasy Boy,

If someone stones a woman to death for showing her leg, can you really think "well, that's just how they do things, it's a different culture?" And what if it was your mother -- would you still think that? And are we allowed to condemn the Holocaust, or would this be the imposition of our values on a different culture (the German culture of the 1940s)?

I said that morality should be based off of human solidarity and the desire to limit human suffering. This is in complete opposition to the examples you just stated.

--

If you are not a moral relativist, then you must believe that there is an absolute moral authority who ultimately decides what is right and what is wrong. Who is this being? How can anyone have any idea what this being wants us do?
posted by wigglin at 7:21 PM on April 5, 2008



C) Bhuddists, Jews, and Muslims don't tend to get into this argument with atheists

As far as I know, the existence of God is not a central idea in Buddhism. There are a lot of deities in various sects, many of which are derived from indigenous religions, but it seems that these deities generally do not play a significant role in Buddhist philosophy.


And as far as Jews are concerned, generally, universal morality is irrelevant--the Ten Commandments were given specifically to the Jews themselves.

I was reacting to the statement itself. I did get that you weren't saying it was your belief, but that didn't make it any less brusque to read. Sorry to have assumed that you were Christian because you wrote it.

I apologize for the theoretical offensiveness of the made-up utterance of an imaginary Christian to a supposedly thin-skinned hypothetical Jew.
posted by nasreddin at 7:26 PM on April 5, 2008


The atheist position is necessarily begging the question if you are the literalist theist on the other side of the argument.

How can a position's question-begging-ness be dependent on an observer's identity? Either an argument assumes its own conclusion or it doesn't. Begging the question doesn't mean "not sharing my worldview." You might as well say that anyone arguing about whether or not God exists is begging the question from the point of view of a theist, since they don't take his existence as a given.

Using "God exists" or "because God said so" as a premise in an argument whose conclusion is "God exists" is question-begging. But one doesn't have to assume God's non-existence (indeed one doesn't have to be an atheist) in order to dismiss the argument in the OP as failing to support the notion of God's existence.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:32 PM on April 5, 2008


Though it's not your primary concern, I'd like to respond to your question of "Why can’t morality be based off of reason, human solidarity, and the desire to limit human suffering?"

René Girard, a Stanford anthropologist, argues in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning that morality can't be based off those things because that's not how humans work. Wishing it were otherwise won't change that fundamental fact. And even worse, if you think you can, if you get caught up in that delusion, you'll just end up perpetuating the violence you sought to prevent, without even realizing that that's what you're doing. (Of course, Christians who are violent are falling into the exact same trap.)
posted by J-Train at 7:37 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is not so. The fact that Richard Dawkins or any other atheist is actively trying to change people's minds about something nothing to do with it. The onus is on the person suggesting an explanation for a phenomenon (for instance, those who offer God as an explanation for the existence of life, the universe, and all other mysterious natural phenomena) to demonstrate why their explanation is the best one.

Except that by discrediting the theist's position, atheists are indirectly attempting to make positive existence claims themselves that bear a burden of proof: namely, that a world existing only of a set of contingent beings is more probable than the theistic version. In other words, both sides make positive existence claims, but they are defining them differently. Simply because the theist is asked to "go first" doesn't mean that the atheist doesn't have something to account for in the end: namely, an explanation of the universe that makes sense (and arguably, more sense), on their accounting of things. Personally, I think that in the end, the atheist has more anomalies to account for, and more required ad hoc adjustments, to make their paradigm work.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:48 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


I don't want to wade into trying to answer this question, but, to the original poster, you really must read The Brothers Karamazov. The book was written for you.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:57 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


ludwig_van,

I brought it up because I think most atheists, sociopaths aside, given their moral similarity to theists, are shaped by fundamentally religious beliefs. That we largely ignore Leviticus isn't enough of an argument to show that atheists are not aligned with those espoused by the church (and yes, I am changing your words slightly from 'scripture' to 'church').

If morality is considered distinct from pragmatic concerns, stable society, etc., then I think belief in God or some sort of cosmological superstructure is presupposed. If morality means a description of how we act, then I think we're using the wrong term and we could just as easily say 'value system'. With 'value system' it's understood that it can be subjective, 'morality' implies an existence outside of any exponent. So I think of morality as prescriptive (and this is just the is/ought discussion which SpacemanStix introduced), what we ought to do. And the claim for the existence of an invisible, eternal standard is a religious one, i.e. man is not the measure. Because of that, I don't think atheists can be moral but those are the wrong words. It's obvious they can act ethically, it's more like they can't be consistent and put forward a claim about morality. This isn't an ethical criticism of atheists, it's more along the lines that some of their thinking, some of their justifications depend on a view of the world that they reject.

So, why the Plato? Because I think it's an interesting case. Someone, who may or may not have been religious, used rhetoric that required a belief in 'another world' to promote a view about the essential nature of man, which is not just considered pragmatic by the atheists but true in some ultimate sense. Most atheists I know believe there is something wrong with sati, and however respectful of other cultures they may be, they think that tradition is just flat out fucked up. Likewise, they denounce child slavery, or rape, at any and all places and times. Seems to me that these prejudices rely on their view of an abstract, equal, individual worth. That is derived from a religious view of the world, both, in how it originated and in supposing a universal standard exists. Reconciling views from one dialog to another is well beyond my capabilities, it looks like a pretty tough job.
posted by BigSky at 8:07 PM on April 5, 2008


If you are not a moral relativist, then you must believe that there is an absolute moral authority who ultimately decides what is right and what is wrong.

No, that doesn't follow.

How can a position's question-begging-ness be dependent on an observer's identity?

Because foundationalism is mistaken.
posted by smorange at 8:11 PM on April 5, 2008


It seems to me that it could go either of two ways:
1. There is absolute morality, God didn't invent it, but to be God he must be the perfect example of it in application.
2. There is no absolute morality and God determines what is right and wrong. Therefore, it is right if God tells us it is right, regardless of what we think of it. For example, God tells us that murder is wrong, EXCEPT when he authorizes it, then it is right.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:21 PM on April 5, 2008


by discrediting the theist's position, atheists are indirectly attempting to make positive existence claims themselves that bear a burden of proof: namely, that a world existing only of a set of contingent beings is more probable than the theistic version.

This doesn't seem to be the same argument as the one in your last comment, but it's also not true. The quoted sentence is a bait-and-switch. It starts out saying that atheists are making positive existence claims, and concludes by saying that atheists contend that a deity is unlikely. What are atheists making an existence claim about? The universe? Rejecting an argument that God created the universe does not require suggesting an alternative.

I brought it up because I think most atheists, sociopaths aside, given their moral similarity to theists, are shaped by fundamentally religious beliefs. That we largely ignore Leviticus isn't enough of an argument to show that atheists are not aligned with those espoused by the church

That theists and atheists tend to be ethically similar is no more an argument for their ethics being fundamentally religious than the opposite. It's not as simple as largely ignoring Leviticus.

Because of that, I don't think atheists can be moral but those are the wrong words.

Well of course if you define "moral" to specifically exclude atheists then they cannot be. But one clearly doesn't have to assume a God in order to have a prescriptive system of morals. This is not to say that one doesn't have to assume something, just that it doesn't have to be God. One could assume that suffering is bad and happiness is good and use that as the basis for a moral system. It's an assumption, but it doesn't require God.

And there are lots of interesting ideas about how our sense of morality could have developed without God. Some argue, for instance, that our sense of morality was beneficial to our survival and so can be seen as a product of evolution. Again, that this idea might be undesirable to some doesn't say anything about whether or not it's true.

Anyway, I've commented enough here so going to bow out of the thread at this point -- feel free to mefimail me if you'd like.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:22 PM on April 5, 2008


In reference to ikkyu2's recommendation, I'd suggest the salient portion of the book (though one really should read the whole thing) is the The Grand Inquisitor section, found here. (And I'd respectfully add that, God bless her, a translation by someone other than Constance Garnett)
posted by dawson at 8:26 PM on April 5, 2008


How can a position's question-begging-ness be dependent on an observer's identity? Either an argument assumes its own conclusion or it doesn't.

There you go trying to argue faith with logic, again.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:26 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


In practice, for most people the true answer to "where does your sense of right and wrong come from?" is "my parents and my peers and other aspects of how I was raised." Since most people don't consciously remember learning right from wrong, it seems to them innate. And since their "innate" sense of right and wrong matches to a large extent the "innate" moral sense of many other individuals, they reason that we must all have been born with that universal moral sense, and proceed to conclude that ultimately our sense of right and wrong must derive from our very Creator. And not only did He make us with that specific morality, we were made, spiritually speaking, in His image, which implies that our values are values that God holds Himself.

Which is true as far as it goes, except that the causality is a lot simpler the other way 'round: we invented God, and in doing so, gave Him all our attributes, including our sense of morality.

Pragmatically, the rules by which we all live become necessary once society reaches a certain size, one in which we can no longer know and establish trust with everyone else. The rules are there because they "work" for large groups of near-strangers living together. A society in which certain things (murder, theft, etc.) are not held to be evil, and certain other things (altruism, honesty, etc.) are not held to be good, is prone to collapse. At the very least, a society that holds functional values outcompetes the societies in which do not, leading to the marginalization if not outright destruction of dysfunctional societies. In other words, the reason certain moral values are held nearly universally is that they are necessary for the societies in which we live to exist, and, having been born into such a society, we are under tremendous social pressure to adopt them as norms so that we can continue to enjoy the benefits of civilization, as that is another one of the rules that "work."

Unfortunately this bears a striking similarity to evolutionary theory, which leads to outright dismissal by the faithful or, in some cases, misguided accusations of social Darwinism.
posted by kindall at 9:41 PM on April 5, 2008 [4 favorites]


dawson, everybody says that, but they're wrong. The salient portion is the chapter immediately preceding the Grand Inquisitor, called "Rebellion." And if you don't know who the characters are or why Ivan is telling this particular story to Alyosha, how can you get the point?

God bless her, a translation by someone other than Constance Garnett

I knew you'd be along to say this; there's one in every crowd. I like Constance's translation; it's carefully literal, consistent, and nuanced.

posted by ikkyu2 at 9:48 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]


so sorry to offend you, ikkyu2, I was merely expressing my opinions. doubtless you are better informed than I am. seriously.
posted by dawson at 10:16 PM on April 5, 2008


Why can’t morality be based off of reason, human solidarity, and the desire to limit human suffering?

First of all let me establish that I believe in God. I believe in eternal damnation and eternal reward-- all of that.

When reflecting on your life choices, how do you judge which were good choices and which were bad? You judge them based on the rewards and punishments you received as a result of them. These rewards and punishments can take many forms -- personal, social, familial, cultural, spiritual, etc. -- but each will fall into one of two categories: "good" and "bad". As we grow, we all refine our criteria according to our experience, but ultimately, we really have no other way of making decisions. Follow the good and dump the bad. I can't guarantee everyone agrees, but I have come to identify certain types of actions as "good", including those that are "rational".

By "rational", I mean those actions that were not made in the heat of the moment, but were planned out in advance. For example, money. Money gives me rewards however I spend it. Punishment comes when I run out. But by planning out how I spend my money and learning to live within my means, I can guarantee a certain safety net in case of an emergency, and enjoy lots of rewards with no punishment. Rational planning FTW.

Another category of action deemed good is "altruism". How does it fit within the reward/punishment system? Well, if you give to the needy, you feel warm fuzzies for yourself. If you spend time with relatives, you enhance familial relationships. If you pick up litter off the street, you get a gold star award from the city council (not really). But these rewards are weak compared to other rewards and usually, people who turn to charity ("philanthropy") have already become successful enough to guarantee a flow of more tangible rewards. Most people just don't even bother with altruism. Yet it persists as a meme.

The key to understanding altruism is understanding its effect on others. Altruism is powerful in those who successfully demonstrate it, because you seem to transcend this reward/punishment system which constrains the rest of us. People respond to this because it gives the impression that you've "escaped the Matrix", because deep down, we all know that the rewards of this life are not terribly exciting. Food, sex, power-- they aren't enough. As the wise man said, "I can't get no satisfaction". If you are devoted to altruism, you seem to be on a plane of reality higher than everyone else and it raises the bar.

So a lot of people who realize this try and transcend the reward/punishment system altogether, claiming to base their morals on an ideal, like the ones you mentioned above. The problem with this is that, if you are in the middle of an earthquake, or dying from thirst, or suffering from plague, will you really care about these lofty ideals you are touting? No. Pain is real. Rationality will team up with pain to destroy your ideals. You will seek to alleviate your own suffering in some real material way. And if you really believed those ideals, the entire foundation of your life will crumble away and it will be very sad.

Not so if you know (in your heart) that 1) there is someone recording all your deeds even unto death and 2) He will reward all good deeds and punish all bad ones in the afterlife. I think that the people who bring up morality when discussing the existence of God have made that connection, and believe that it is the only way to true altruism, that is, altruism which isn't repressed or self-denying.
posted by Laugh_track at 10:38 PM on April 5, 2008


I'm going to have to disagree with Laugh track here. I know plenty of people who don't believe in the big JC who behave very nicely, and am at least aware of a bunch of people who at least claim to strongly believe in salvation who sure don't act like He's watching.

I would agree with others above that the problem is a misunderstanding of the terminology. There's a concrete difference between ethics and morals.

In my opinion, morals are inherently religious. I remember watching some Christian TV channel a ways back (I think it was the 700 Club with Pat Robertson) and they were talking about donations that were going towards work in Africa. And he was asked, post blank, by the show host: "What's more important, feeding the children, or saving souls?" I nearly spit out my soup when he said "Saving souls."

That, my friends, is the difference between ethics and morality. I'm not saying that all Christians have these morals, or that I believe that feeding children is or isn't necessarily more "moral" than saving souls. However, for Pat Robertson and the people that think like him, saving souls is a very important, very moral activity, one that trumps what I would consider normal "ethics". Morals are religiously derived; it just so happens that people behaving "ethically" exhibit behaviors similar to those behaving "morally".

There's no question in my mind that atheists can be ethical people. Most of them are, in my opinion, equally honest, trustworthy, caring, etc. as theists. In my opinion, if you are guided by your morals exclusively then you are in constant danger, because all it takes is a loss of faith and suddenly your behavior no longer has structure. On the other hand, if you live ethically you do not need to have faith in order to maintain your behavior.

I don't eat pork, even though I know it's now generally safe to do so. I also don't believe that I will go to hell for eating pork. But I continue to avoid it because from a religious standpoint it is unclean, and I would feel unclean eating it. I have allowed that sentiment -- which just happened to be religiously inspired -- to penetrate my self and being. I suspect that similar beliefs and sentiments have impregnated themselves into the being (could I even say, the "soul") of both theists and atheists. Their actions are guided by either societal or internal ethics, or religious morals, but they have become so embedded that a presence or absence of faith is pretty incidental to their practice. It occurred to me at one point, for example, that much of the items in world are relatively easy to steal without getting caught. And yet they don't get stolen in numbers anywhere close to suggesting that "Should I steal or not?" is a 50/50 chance. People know that stealing is wrong, and so they don't do it, even if the threat of punishment does not exist.

I personally behave ethically because I want to live in a world where people are ethical, and it is impossible for me to do this without modeling ethical behavior myself. I don't always behave ethically; I make mistakes, get angry, speak untruthfully, fail to others' feelings into account, etc more often than I would care to think about, but I still struggle to be good because of an internal need to be this way. Is this need divinely sourced? I don't know. I believe in God but I don't believe that such belief is necessary to be a good person.

So the argument the OP is asking about is flawed because morals are not necessary for people to live in harmony; ethics are. But to argue that morals can exist outside of religion is similarly problematic because it can be effectively argued that morals are, by definition, religiously sourced.

I would also say that all arguments or discussions about the existence or non-existence of God are inherently impossible. Either you are going to believe, or you cannot. You may have an experience which changes your view, but that experience is unlikely to be a conversation with someone with an opposing viewpoint.
posted by Deathalicious at 1:24 AM on April 6, 2008


What you're describing sounds like the very opposite of altruism, Laugh_track. Doing good things for other people, because you know (in your heart) you'll be rewarded by god, seems very selfish and to me just adds to the OP's question - how can (some) theists claim ultimate moral authority when their own salvation is the goal?

BigSky's claim that atheists can't be moral because morality is presupposed by a belief in god and in a certain set of religious principles is the crux of the OP's question to me and I think highlights Miko's answer perfectly - if this is the worldview you've accepted then everything you observe and experience will be seen through that lens and judged accordingly. The attitude BigSky describes is (to me) essentially an appeal to authority and thus a lazy argument, and results in the person espousing that side of the argument feeling superior and the other person simply bewildered. As Deathalicious says, most of the time reconciliation of these viewpoints is impossible.
posted by goo at 1:55 AM on April 6, 2008


I said that morality should be based off of human solidarity and the desire to limit human suffering. This is in complete opposition to the examples you just stated.

But if you're a moral relativist, then human solidarity and the desire to limit human suffering are just your particular values -- how are they supposed to be binding on anyone else? If you arbitrarily decide to champion certain values, everyone else is free to champion other values equally arbitrarily. Hence people typically seek some more absolute foundation for morality.

If you are not a moral relativist, then you must believe that there is an absolute moral authority who ultimately decides what is right and what is wrong. Who is this being? How can anyone have any idea what this being wants us do?


Again, I think that what you're saying here would constitute an argument for theism. It's hard to make serious moral claims while relativizing them as personal preference or cultural preference -- basically moral claims have to be seen as objective or they are not really moral claims, just personal grievances. (There's a lot more arguing to be done here, some of which I did upthread, but for now...) And if what you say is true, namely that absolute morality implies theism, then we would have to all be theists for our society to have any moral fabric.

So I would say: your own assumption that only theistic morality can be absolute is one of the greatest arguments for theism, and is the answer to your question.

However, I think you're mistaken that absolute morality = theistic morality. There's a long tradition of philosophy that seeks to found morality in rationality, from Kant to Habermas. Of course there's a parallel tradition of calling bullshit on rationalistic morality. Also G.E. Moore tried to ground morality in some kind of objective reality by saying that events and actions have real moral qualities that we can perceive ... or something like that, but it's a weird position. Also I think utilitarians would claim to have an objective morality based on the premises that pain and pleasure are objectively bad and good, respectively ... although I don't think their claims hold water either. But that's a different discussion.
posted by creasy boy at 4:13 AM on April 6, 2008


Something of this sort of argued by Kant: we can't know anything about God's existence one way or the other, but we have to assume the postulate of God's existence to make sense of our moral practice.

A little bit more on this
: one of the major tensions in moral theory is the existence of apparently widespread injustice. If we think, as many theists do, that intentions rather than consequences are the relevant feature of our moral lives, it's hard to determine the best course of action in such an unjust world without the hope that right actions will lead to an improvement in that injustice.

Put another way: in a world without God, it's difficult to imagine that moral rectitude will lead to a just society. There are many concrete examples when doing the right thing, or failing to do the immoral thing, will lead to a less happy state of affairs than some immoral choice. Without God, there is no reason to hope that morality will be rewarded. Atheists may have plenty of rule-based reasons for forgoing immoral action, but they might jettison these quickly if they see an immoral option that is likely to lead to a more just state of affairs. Crime and Punishment depicts a classic example of this. Keep in mind that this argument requires us to adopt an intentionalist and non-situational theory of morality, but that's not altogether absurd and is certainly a primary consideration for most theists. In short, part of the Kantian argument for God depends on a definition of morality that implicitly requires him. I think Kant is pretty humble on this point, but successive generations of theist Kantians have somewhat lost the thread of that humility.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:44 AM on April 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


I said that morality should be based off of human solidarity and the desire to limit human suffering.

If it's based off of those things, what should it be based on? ;)

But if you're a moral relativist, then human solidarity and the desire to limit human suffering are just your particular values -- how are they supposed to be binding on anyone else?

And if you're a moral absolutist, then moral absolutism is just your particular value -- how is it supposed to be binding on anyone else? If you're a theist, then theism is just your particular value, and so on.

This is a big problem with relying on gods for your moral compass. You can't "solve" the "problem" of moral relativism (which is not a problem but an inconvenient fact) by pushing it back another level. Inventing a god and assigning to it your moral values, then using this deity as an authority to establish an "absolute" morality, is clearly circular when phrased in this way. Not coincidentally, theists are careful never to do so when talking about their god, though they will sometimes cop to it when talking about other people's gods.

Believing in a specific god is, in the final analysis, just as much a choice as any other way you might derive your principles. In my previous post I talked about mistaking a lack of memory of the formation of your principles for innateness, and this is another form of the same mistake. Admittedly, many theists simply cannot imagine that their belief in God is in any way voluntary, but this says more about their imaginations than it does about the proposition. One always has the ability to examine his premises, and I would in fact argue that doing so is the beginning of true virtue.
posted by kindall at 11:38 AM on April 6, 2008


I said that morality should be based off of human solidarity and the desire to limit human suffering.

Why? Who's to say that solidarity is good and suffering is bad? If you use the word "should" when you are defining morality, then you are using circular reasoning. The theistic argument posits that because we can all agree that there are universal moral imperatives (eg don't torture babies), this implies that there is a universal moral authority. A world of floating molecules and chemical reactions does not have any "should"s or "ought"s.
posted by jpdoane at 12:30 PM on April 6, 2008


And if you're a moral absolutist, then moral absolutism is just your particular value -- how is it supposed to be binding on anyone else?

If you're a moral absolutist, and if you're right, then it isn't just your particular value. As to how it's binding: details will vary depending on the theory.

You can't "solve" the "problem" of moral relativism (which is not a problem but an inconvenient fact)

I assume you mean that people don't always agree on morals. OK, this is a fact, but the relevance of this fact depends on how you conceive morals. If by "morals" you mean the values they actually uphold in conduct or speech, in other words as psychological facts about people, then yes people do in fact have non-identical morals. But if by "morals" you mean what people should do or what values they should have rather than what values they may in fact happen to have, then at this point it's an entirely open question whether these are relative or not, and empirical facts don't really settle the question. In other words, it depends on whether you're describing value-systems as an anthropologist or sociologist or psychologist, in which case you would see that people do hold non-identical morals, or whether you're thinking the matter through as a moralist, trying to figure out what people should do. Facts about what other people espouse do not answer the question of what you should do or what we all should do.

Anyway, this guy came to AskMe with a real question. He's not asking to be confirmed in his own opinion, he's asking for a charitable reading of the other position.
posted by creasy boy at 1:05 PM on April 6, 2008


I must say that this discussion has gone better than it would have seemed, and thanks to Jess or whomever for removing my initial skeptical comment. If only the Heston thread had gone as well rather than driving a well liked user to close his account.

As to the question at hand, the argument about morality often comes up because it seems strange to many people that in a Darwinian world where animals, including people, compete against others for resources that a system of morals which promote altruism should arise. It would seem to contradict a Darwinian model. It is a weak argument to be sure and easily refuted by the fact that collective altruism can provide a better overall outcome and our Darwinian exploration of the issue has led us to this superior path. Nevertheless, that is why the theist will make this argument.

Since the existence of God, or the opposite, can not be proven by logic such arguments are silly and a waste of time for all involved. Given the incredible variety of religions that have arisen around the world it seems likely to me that there is something out there spiritually, be it a deity or a collective but that whatever it might be it is likely more complex than our ability to understand it. We certainly won't prove it either way through logic being applied to our observable universe; think the parable of the blind man and the elephant multiplied a thousand fold.
posted by caddis at 2:00 PM on April 6, 2008


I hope my response can be somehow picked out of the surely-thousands of responses by now, and, like the OP's later remark, none of it is intended in the vein of being snarky about it, just stating an argument in all fairness.

I believe in YHWH but do not make this abstract leap of judgment that, having no belief in specifically one particular god equals a complete absence of morality. That might even marginally make sense if there were not truly dozens of thousands of other purported gods from which to seek guidance.

Why can’t morality be based off of reason, human solidarity, and the desire to limit human suffering?

I think there is a very common rationale held by both theist and non that suggests any particular morality can't originate from self, that it must have originated by some other established code of ethics. With the possibility of creating one's own morality (which incidentally is how I assert all moralities occur, as one actively decides a particular morality to follow, perhaps unless you are a replicant) also comes rationalized disobedience, wherein stealing is not a crime because "I really really wanted it and in all due reason the universe agrees according to my invented morality that I should actually have had that," and loads of other self-justifying "reasoning" apart from what a different source indicates as proper. In that case, "creating a morality based purely from reason" doesn't seem likely to remain intact, since, in order to defy it, one need simply employ another reason. It's like deciding to go on a diet. "I have decided to go on a diet" changes when you simply decide to break the diet, since the basis for having gone on the diet was your own decision. Without adhering to a pre-established morality, one merely engages in philsophical Calvinball.

Religious texts, which are supposedly the word of god, are full of things that modern society deems morally abhorrent(slavery, sexism, child abuse, racism, etc.), so they are irrelevant when talking about morality.

This is a fairly common non-theist statement that shoots up a giant, semaphore-waving cornucopia of red flags, that indicate the reader of these particular verses likely either looked up verses that seemed to follow a theme (a very terrible idea) or has so little bible knowledge that there is no hope for context. It would be the same as me (as someone who got a D in regular algebra) saying that there can't possibly be something as Dark Matter and that it is impossible to figure that stuff out with numbers. I have no particular context to know whether or not it can or cannot be figured out with numbers. I can, however, write you an entire essay about how slavery is perfectly legitimate (summary: slavery, like money, is neutral. It's the slave master that makes it bad. A good slave master can purchase slaves, educate them, treat them nicely, heal and counsel them, and write their freedom papers. Sometime in the future a new technique for counseling may come about that eliminates the jail system as we know it, making all of the people who believed that the jail system of the past as a legitimate endeavor out to be total douchebags in the future's eyes). Verses indicating "morally abhorrent" suggestions are all within a context, such as "Fred went and did this" largely in matter-of-fact statements, not in a suggestion that everyone else should, per se. For instance, the refusal to interpret "you make take the women as your wife" in any other way than "you may rape them" is a deliberate close-mindedness. If one decides that it does mean that without even bothering to make sure first, what possible explanation can I offer? What you may not know is that the Hebrews were not permitted to marry Gentiles (non-Hebrews) but such verses could instead quite undramatically indicate Gentiles permissible for wedlock. The bible is very largely about how mankind has generally been really stupid, and lists the really stupid things they did -- in an effort to create an environment where people could learn from those mistakes and avoid some really stank consequences -- not as a suggestion or demand that you do those particularly stupid things. However, the bible also describes how people disobeyed direct orders that at the time seemed really stupid and the consequences that came about from that refusal (by opting to put their own pride in greater importance than his instruction). Portions of religious texts are relevant when discussing morality.
posted by vanoakenfold at 3:13 PM on April 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


the fact that collective altruism can provide a better overall outcome and our Darwinian exploration of the issue has led us to this superior path.

Thats fine, but I wouldn't call it morality. I would call it pragmatism. And by superior, do you mean superior in a ethical sense or in a survivalist sense? Because if you mean in a survivalist sense, fine. But I suspect that you were implying a morally superior path, and in doing so you are invoking some higher standard to evaluate this Darwinian outcome.

What if we came to the collective realization that we could be a healthier, more prosperous species if we killed every person over the age of 65? Perhaps, from a Darwinist perspective, this might be 'superior' in that it would minimize 'wasted' resources on the portion of the population that is not directly contributing to raising the next generation. If you believe such plan would be wrong or immoral, than I submit that you are appealing to a higher standard of ethics than pragmatic Darwinism, and would ask you where that standard comes from.
posted by jpdoane at 5:00 PM on April 6, 2008


If you're a moral absolutist, and if you're right, then it isn't just your particular value.

Of course, but these days it doesn't seem all that likely.

If you believe such plan [killing everyone over 65] would be wrong or immoral, than I submit that you are appealing to a higher standard of ethics than pragmatic Darwinism, and would ask you where that standard comes from.

Pure self-interest more than suffices.
posted by kindall at 5:26 PM on April 6, 2008


And by superior, do you mean superior in a ethical sense or in a survivalist sense?

survivalist. the superior ethical part just flows from that. the main point being that God is not the sole logical reason for humans to have developed a sense of ethics or morals (and humans are not the only species to have done so, see dolphins).
posted by caddis at 5:17 AM on April 7, 2008


Pure self-interest more than suffices.

Which is what "evolved morality" ultimately boils down to. (This is basically Ayn Rand's Philosophy)

Besides, perhaps I chose a bad example. What if we just decided to exterminate other people groups? Or if we decided that we were overpopulating and killed everyother newborn.

The point is that these things remain evil for reasons other than the colletive survival of the species.

Whether or not you agree with the validity of this point, it is the answer to the OP's question.
posted by jpdoane at 7:41 AM on April 7, 2008


Not necessarily. We may have developed a system of morality out of self interest for the group but now that it has been developed, taught down through generations and embodied in our culture it has taken on a life of its own and despite the expediency of removing some group that act will remain evil in our evolved system of morality. It might also remain evil as that benefits the whole group of humanity. It certainly is a dangerous thing to that group to have sub-groups deciding to eliminate each other. Of course, it could also have come from a deity. I maintain you can not prove logically the existence or non-existence of a deity through the mere presence of morality. If you want to talk about the evil of killing newborns, let's extend that to killing babies in the womb. How moral is that? Not very, but society in its moral glory has made a policy decision that bringing unwanted babies into the world is even less moral, or less convenient, I can never remember which.
posted by caddis at 7:50 AM on April 7, 2008


It certainly is a dangerous thing to that group to have sub-groups deciding to eliminate each other

Why? Thats how we evolved, right? What's wrong with survival of the fittest?

...society in its moral glory...

It sounds as if you are being critical of society's moral choices. But I don't see how you can do that if our society itself develops its own morality. From your perspective, we as a society can never do wrong, since we are merely setting and following our own moral code. If you are taking issue with how we as a society behave, then from what grounds are you making your evaluation?
posted by jpdoane at 8:34 AM on April 7, 2008


You seem to assume that morality is singular, that opinions on it do not differ.
posted by caddis at 9:01 AM on April 7, 2008


It sounds as if you are being critical of society's moral choices. But I don't see how you can do that if our society itself develops its own morality. From your perspective, we as a society can never do wrong, since we are merely setting and following our own moral code. If you are taking issue with how we as a society behave, then from what grounds are you making your evaluation?

Ok, I had to pop back in to add this: I don't think that follows from his perspective at all. One can evaluate them from an evolutionary/survival perspective. It is possible for a strategy to be effective in the short term but ultimately evolutionarily unstable. For instance, a group of "suckers" (pure altruists) is vulnerable to invasion by a group of "cheats" (pure advantage-takers). However, over time the suckers will die out due to the advantage of the cheats, but the cheats will subsequently die out as well when there are no more suckers for them to benefit from. See also: tit for tat.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:21 AM on April 7, 2008


And here's a relevant excerpt from The Selfish Gene regarding the iterated prisoner's dilemma, reciprocal altruism, and tit for tat. All of those are good search terms.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:32 AM on April 7, 2008


You seem to assume that morality is singular, that opinions on it do not differ.

I fully agree that opinions on morality differ. That is substantially different than saying that morality is fully subjective.

What I am asserting is that there are some core beliefs that are universally held. And even if there exist individuals who depart from these beliefs, the rest of us do not simply accept it as a valid personal opinion, but are quite comfortable as labeling such beliefs and behaviors as wrong.

In order for your perspective to hold, you must hold that every single moral value that you hold dear is merely a pragmatic development from the process of evolution. That nothing is really "wrong" in an ultimate, cosmic sense, only that certain values and beliefs tend to work better for healthy successful societies. This is what I mean by pragmatism.

However, if there is just one moral issue that you hold that is really, truly an issue of right and wrong, good and evil (racism, sexism, killing babies, whatever) - something that you could say,

"Regardless of how I or others feel about this, and regardless of evolutionary development and natural selection, this is flat out wrong. If every person on earth including myself believed something different, we would still all be wrong"

then I hold (and more to the point of the origional question, this is what a theist may argue), that you believe in a higher moral authority.

One can evaluate them from an evolutionary/survival perspective

One can certainly study such interactions between populations with differing values, but one cannot claim a priori which group more ethical. You can only discuss who might "win". That being the case, it is a situation where the ends completely justify the means, and questions of right and wrong become mere constructs -- substitutions for successful or unsuccessful. To critique an emergant, evolutionary successful society and say that it is becoming immoral would be a contradiction in terms and a logical fallacy. This is what I was trying to point out.
posted by jpdoane at 10:28 AM on April 7, 2008


If something feels like a moral absolute, then it is either truly a moral absolute, or it merely feels like one without actually being one.

To us, the monkeys who have those feelings of moral absoluteness, there is absolutely no way to tell whether something that feels to us like a moral absolute actually is or not, any more than there is any way to know what is outside our universe or whether God exists.

So I don't see any reason to assume that moral absolutes even exist. We hold certain moral principles because we have been conditioned to do so by society (in most cases) or by evolution (in certain other cases -- an instinct against baby killing would likely fall here, since it is easy to see how it would be a survival advantage to have parents who basically refuse to kill you).

To critique an emergant, evolutionary successful society and say that it is becoming immoral would be a contradiction in terms and a logical fallacy.

People do seem to have a problem with the idea that we can't really establish moral absolutes. They seem to think it is impossible to have civilization without them. But if there are no moral absolutes, then obviously we have civilization without them -- Q.E.D.
posted by kindall at 1:35 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


People do seem to have a problem with the idea that we can't really establish moral absolutes. They seem to think it is impossible to have civilization without them. But if there are no moral absolutes, then obviously we have civilization without them -- Q.E.D.

You are begging the question. You are essentially saying that there are no moral absolutes, so therefore there are no moral absolutes.

I have a question for you. Some people believe that white people are superior to black people. Other people believe that skin color does not make one person better than another. Who has the morally superior position? Or are these two equally valid ways of viewing the world?
posted by jpdoane at 2:33 PM on April 7, 2008


To critique an emergant, evolutionary successful society and say that it is becoming immoral would be a contradiction in terms and a logical fallacy.

Again this is not true. As I alluded to above, there are some strategies which will be successful in the short term, or successful against some particular strategies, but ultimately self-destructive or weak compared to other strategies. I think that most critiques of "ends justify the means" type thinking will take that form -- that despite the possible short-term expediency of certain policies, societies which do not value human life will be weaker in the long run than those that do.

As the links I posted point out, the reciprocal altruist strategy has proven to be the best in the iterated prisoner's dilemma, a fact which surprised many observers. Our common sense of morality could likely have developed not in spite of, but as a result of our Darwinian nature.

Some people believe that white people are superior to black people. Other people believe that skin color does not make one person better than another. Who has the morally superior position?

One could argue, effectively I think, that the society which affords all its members equal opportunities to self-actualize and contribute to society as a whole will be more likely to flourish and grow strong than one that only treats a segment of the population as full-fledged individuals, or one in which sub-groups are segregated and do not share knowledge and resources.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:25 PM on April 7, 2008


No, the point is that you can't define a moral absolute. Is it absolute or is it highly regarded? If someone disagrees does that mean it isn't absolute or does that make them deviant? There are no moral absolutes, but there are moral positions that very, very many people agree with. Do they feel this way because God told them or because society has evolved to embrace altruism? You can't prove it either way. (by the way, I am a pretty fervent believer in God; I just find these logic games fruitless; and I can argue the other side even more forcefully if you want, but that is not what faith is about;, logic can not prove things here and no one is in the position of having to prove their point as no one can disprove the other point; it's a standoff logically. If you believe then feel comfortable, if you don't then feel comfortable, fighting over it is fruitless. live and let live)
posted by caddis at 7:27 PM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


One could argue, effectively I think, that the society which affords all its members equal opportunities to self-actualize and contribute to society as a whole will be more likely to flourish and grow strong than one that only treats a segment of the population as full-fledged individuals, or one in which sub-groups are segregated and do not share knowledge and resources.

The whole of evolution is based on the strong dominating the weak. I grant you that there are reasons for evolved cooperation, but this egalitarianism is hardly the cornerstone of natural selection. You could certainly make just as good of a case for an evolved morality where the "best" action would be to advance your own tribe at the expense of others.

People for a long time have held very racist ideas. Our modern day sensibilities are a relatively recent development. Is it possible that we are just the blip on the evolutionary timeline? That we are the ones in the middle of some of our own short-term expediency of certain policies? Who's to say we are not? How would we know?

In any case, neither you nor I believe that the moral question of racism hangs in the balance of the above questions. It is not because racist ideas either do or do not contribute positively to natural selection. Racism is wrong because there is a higher moral authority that has told us to "love our neighbor as ourselves"
posted by jpdoane at 9:09 PM on April 7, 2008


That is a highly simplified view of evolution. It is not about the strong dominating the weak. Again I'd suggest you do some reading about game theory and the evolution of morality, which in many ways directly contradicts what you're arguing. Like I said, it's not necessarily intuitive, but it's been demonstrated that reciprocal altruism is an effective and evolutionarily stable strategy.

Racism is wrong because there is a higher moral authority that has told us to "love our neighbor as ourselves"

As was pointed out upthread, this is view is problematic, because if your "higher moral authority" told you that racism was right, then it would become right. And there are plenty of things which the same moral authority has instructed which modern society in general does not believe or practice.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:55 PM on April 7, 2008


That is a highly simplified view of evolution
Thats fair - I make no claims to be an expert in this area (although it does interest me).

Basically my point is that evolution can perhaps explain why we believe some things to be moral or immoral, but it does not make things moral or immoral. And by saying that this is the sole source of morality, one is really saying that there is no such thing as morality, just the perception of it.

As was pointed out upthread, this is view is problematic
This is only problematic if you assume that modern society is that standard by which God is judged. If, however, you assume that modern society is mistaken on a few things, then there is no problem with this view. That is not to say that certain things aren't situational, cultural, or just plain difficult to understand. See the last paragraph of vanoakenfold's comment upthread regarding this
posted by jpdoane at 10:49 PM on April 7, 2008


actually, upon reading again, I want to distance myself somewhat from vanoakenfold's comment's re: slavery - I do not think that slavery is neutral, and the Biblical references to it are a more complex hermeneutical issue
posted by jpdoane at 10:56 PM on April 7, 2008


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