Quotable — God and Objective Morality

“If evil truly exists, what we could call ‘objective evil’ — then there also exist objective moral values, moral values which are binding on all people, whether they acknowledge them as such or not.  If rape, racism, torture, murder, government-sanctioned genocide and so forth are objectively evil, what makes them so?  What makes them truly evil, rather than simply activities we dislike?  What made the atrocities of the Nazis evil, even though Hitler and his thugs maintained otherwise?  One cannot consistently affirm both that there are no objective moral values, on the one hand, and that rape, torture and the like are objectively morally evil on the other.  If there are objective moral values, there must be some basis — some metaphysical foundation — for their being so. . . .

But [you] can’t have [your] cake and eat it too.  If good and evil are objectively real, they need an objective foundation.  No atheist has provided one, and it’s doubtful that one will be forthcoming.  We can put the problem concisely:

(1) If moral notions such as good and evil exist objectively, then there must be an objective foundation for their existence.

(2) Atheism offers no objective basis for the existence of moral notions such as good and evil.

(3) Therefore, for the atheist, moral notions such as good and evil must not objectively exist.”

— Chad Meister, “God, Evil, and Morality,” God is Great, God is Good, 109, 115.

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14 thoughts on “Quotable — God and Objective Morality

  1. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for your comments. I agree with you that we always have to be aware of our personal biases and that they can skew our interpretations of things. One way to help avoid that, I think, is to share our ideas with other people and listen to their reactions. Often our friends can help us see when we have blindspots and to see an issue more clearly.

    But Adam is right about the pitfall of relativism when it comes to interpretation. If we have no chance at arriving at the truth (or something very close to it), then none of us can positively assert anything. Even the statement that “We can’t know the truth, since we only have our interpretations,” is a positive truth claim. But it’s self-defeating, because it tries to claim truth when truth (supposedly) isn’t attainable.

    I also agree with you that God has a sense of humor, for which I’m thankful. : )

    All the best,
    Chris

  2. Hi Adam
    I understand your argument when you point out what you percieve as contradictions in what i have said. And in fariness to you i couldnt dissagree. But the reality is that at the end of the day all any of us have around anything quoted in the bible is simply an interpretaion. There is no getting away from that Adam. And it is equally true to use words of your own, that we do in fact have no realiable record of what it was the man actualy said. What we have is interpretations. My interpretaion is but a signpost, a pointer, pointing towards what i feel is an accurate representation of the truth. But my opionion, that is to say, my interpertation, is not, can not be the truth. It is the same for all of us. The difficulty though we have as human beings tends to be that we continualy lose ourselves in our interpretations. What i mean by that is that we argue about the signpost and forget about where we are going. There is so many versions of the bible, so many religious texts and traditons since the dawn of man, all of which point towards the truth. So what do we do? We become indentified with our interpretations, and miss the point entirely. Rape, violence, wars, all of that which most of us call evil, right down to the everyday difficulties we choose in our realationships have as their base cause our perpetual need to seek our identities in our opionions, that is to say our interpretations. We have created it all, it has nothing to do with God. If god existed he or she would hardly pick out any buch of people to be sole distributors of his or her or its word. God I rekon would be above all that. Thank God he does’nt exist.Ps, God would have a sense of humor too if he or she or it or whatever existed. Thanks

    • Jason,
      Point of clarification: When you say “But my opinion, that is to say, my interpretation, is not, can not be the truth.” Do you mean that it cannot be the truth (that it is simply impossible that you could hit upon something true) or do you mean that you can never know with certainty if you have said something true? It seems to me that whether you are sure that you cannot speak truth or cannot recognize it as true with certainty–either way it is at odds with your statement that “There are so many versions of the bible, so many religious texts and traditions since the dawn of man, all of which point towards the truth.” For if we cannot recognize truth or make truth claims, it does not follow that we could know if religious texts and/or traditions point to “truth” at all. Unless there is some additional premise that you are assuming and I am missing it. If that is the case, what is the premise?

  3. Pingback: What would a Christian apologetics movie look like? « Wintery Knight

  4. Human beings have been waffling on – myself included- about this right and wrong nonsense for ages. If we need to consult a book in order to guide us in our decison making then we truly are past the point of resuce. The man Jesus, said many things, but how much of what he said have we properly interpreted. Do we not, at whatever level, bring our own preconceptions, our own judgements to all forms of information that we ingest, and then regurtitate and communicate it outward in our own colors and shades based of course on our personal belief systems, which by their very existence have to be biased and therefore judgemental. Christians say that Jesus’s greatest promise was that you shall have eternal life, implying of course that you do not have it now, but at some time in the future you will, if you listen to us and do what we say. Those are the words of confused people who have missunderstood the teachings of Jesus. The Teachings of Jesus are not written in a book, nor ever can be, and they are not even the teachings of Jesus, they are simple understandings that we are all capable of accesing in ourselves. The man Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is within you. How difficult is that to interpert. There is no mystery there. It may not be easy to begin to really learn to become our own point of referecne when looking for answers, but the truth is that that is what we all do anyway whether we are consious of if or not. Right and wrong, good and evil are all mental constructs, they are ideas created by mankind in order to keep himself in check. To accomodate this insane strategey he has then created a god completly outside of himself and told all his freinds that it is this god fellow who has created all these rules, so we had better pay heed, or else. But Does this strategey work. Does it actually keep him in check, does it stop him from doing what he would call evil. Not at all. It is in fact worse he gets. We all know what to do, that is to say, what the appropriate action is in all circumstance, the action that is in line with the betterment of the whole. The man Jesus and many others have shown us the way, and yet we continue to corrupt their words for our own selfish purposes and call it the word of God. Our conversations are good for a cup of coffee after dinner ladies and gentlemen. But meanwhile the human race as a spices is heading full speed towards extintion. You do know the difference between right and wrong, between good and evil. You are choosing it in every moment, and in your chossing is is your creating. The time is now.

    • Jason,
      If “The Teachings of Jesus are not written in a book, nor ever can be, and they are not even the teachings of Jesus, they are simple understandings that we are all capable of accessing in ourselves.” How can you know claim in the next sentence, “The man Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is within you?” Wouldn’t it be better for you to just leave Jesus out of your claim altogether rather than say we have no reliable record of what he said, but then attribute a quote to him?

      Also, if you say “Do we not, at whatever level, bring our own preconceptions, our own judgments to all forms of information that we ingest, and then regurgitate and communicate it outward in our own colors and shades based of course on our personal belief systems, which by their very existence have to be biased and therefore judgmental.” Doesn’t that undercut your assertion that “Those are the words of confused people who have misunderstood the teachings of Jesus.” Your first statement essentially denies any objectivity to meaning via interpretation, but your second claim argues that meaning is obtainable, albeit Christians failed to get it. Furthermore, you assert that the meaning of “The Kingdom of God is within.” How can any meaning be obvious if your first statement is true? The issue seems to be that you want to deny objective meaning, but then assert your meaning. Or do you mean that your meaning is subjective and we are all free to interpret your meaning subjectively (which we’ll all do anyway) and therefore meaningful dialog about God, objective morality, virtue, vice, human nature, blogging, the population of Goddard, Kansas are all meaningless, the Mohs scale is impossible?

  5. this line of argument seems terribly wanting – and circular – to me.

    If god is the root of all ‘objective morality’ why do different gods have different morals? and how come god’s moral values change over time?

    For instance you say “If rape, racism, torture, murder, government-sanctioned genocide and so forth are objectively evil”

    Oddly on 1 of those 5 things are mentioend in the 10 commandments, which seems to suggest that although our modern world views them as bad shows they were not top of god’s mind in Moses’ time?

    And even murder is problematic – for many christians it is OK to murder people who
    – are soldiers in an enemy army
    – are convicted criminals.

    Seems to me that one of the messages of Jesus, with his startling and unsettling parables, is that there is no such things as objective morals that can be written in a book and consulted on every occasion. Buddha’s teachings might sugggest the same.

    • I affirm that Jesus told some startling and unsettling parables, but which did you have in mind that teach “that there is no such things as objective morals that can be written in a book and consulted on every occasion?”

      • Adam – a good question.
        My line of thought was that by telling strange stories, where the moral or lesson of the story is obscure and/or surprising Jesus forces his listeners to thinks for themselves to try and work out what the story means.

        As opposed to a didactic preacher hands out prescriptive messages, 10 Commnandments and so on. His message is ‘don’t think for yourself.. do as you are told’

        Jesus’ style seems to be saying ‘life is more complicated’ as soon as you lay out a rule that is – in general – a good one, real life turns up circs where everything is more complicated, and look-up-the-rule and follow it- Punish-nonadherance is not a good approach.

        Martha and Mary, the wise and foolish virgins, the prodigal son, the non-stoning of the adulteress, criticising the piety of the pharisee, the vineyard owner who pays all his casual labour for the whole day. All of those stories say to me : real life is complicated. morals conflict with eachother. actions that are right in one context may be wrong in another (becuse different values are in conflict).

        buddhist tales have some similarity: strange tales where the point is unclear demand thought.

        Have you read Philip Pullman’s latest book – the Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ? Some excellent retelling of certain parables are very thouight provocative.

        (mary and martha

    • Hi botogol,

      How are you? As usual, you raise some good questions.

      About different gods having different morality, I think that’s true, descriptively speaking: different religions have somewhat different moralities — although I think there’s a good bit of agreement. I only believe in one God, the God of Christian theism, so I wouldn’t accept the teachings of other religions as divine revelation. This is an interesting issue to look at, but it’s a bit different than what I was suggesting with the quotation — that God (of which there can only be one by definition) is the only plausible ground for objective moral values.

      One clarification that I should make is that I’m claiming that objective moral values exist, and that they have their foundation in God, but I’m not claiming that certain moral values are *absolute.* For example, someone might say that the prohibition against murder is *absolute*, so killing is never permitted, even in the case of self-defense. I wouldn’t defend that kind of moral theory because I believe that circumstances can change which moral action a person should take.

      Rather than an absolutist position like that, I want to argue that God provides the metaphysical or ontological foundation for whatever moral values exist. Specifically, that God’s morally perfect nature provides the foundation for good and evil existing and having an objective set of properties. Without God, any kind of morality we can come up with is ultimately arbitrary, and can only depend on individual or social customs or preferences. But if that’s true, things like racism and genocide aren’t really wrong, they’re just not socially accepted. But every sane human being has the deep intuition that some things are really right and some are really wrong, despite anyone’s subjective opinion. Rape is objectively wrong, and kindness is objectively good, regardless of what anyone else says. Thus, moral values transcend human opinions, and require an ontological foundation — which can only be God, in my view.

      Take care,
      Chris

      • Hi Chris, I am well thank you.

        Ok, let’s leave aside other Gods; but even with one particular God, his changing values over time presents a problem. For instance on racism – now seen as ‘objectively evil’ by Chad Meister and many/most others in our culture, the evil of racism somehow doesn’t seem to have become properly apparent to God, and his church, until the late 20th century. At about the same time it became apparent to the secular world in fact. How can that be?

        However I do agree that at some level there is some universal value: perhaps that kindess is good and unkindness is bad.

        But it is very hard to translate that fundamental truth into anything prescriptive in the real world where a single act may be both kind and unkind, where it may cause pleasure for one person but pain for another.

        For instance Murder is wrong but many Christians in the USA accept the death penalty (while many atheists – such as myself – belieie it is wrong).

        In general religions which rely on devine revelation always have a central problem: a prescriptive text will not answer to every problem. In fact to hardly any problems. In real life we have to decide for ourselves.

        That kindess is good and unkindness is bad is, it seems to me, accepted in all societies and by almost individuals, including the Godless and those that worship the ‘wrong’ gods. To me this points in the other direction from that which you claim: it tells me that this sense of right and wrong does not depend on divine revalation, but comes from within ourselves. It is human, not divine.

        • Hi botogol,

          I agree with several things you say here — that there are universal values (like kindness) that almost everyone agrees are right and true, and that questions of morality are often complicated and can’t often be decided by one moral principle (e.g., we shouldn’t steal or we should always tell the truth — we can think of exceptions to these general moral principles). I think those are good points.

          On the other hand, what I’ve been trying to argue goes somewhat deeper than these questions, which are essentially epistemological in nature: How do we decide in a particular case what is the right and wrong thing to do? My argument, instead, concerns the ontological foundation of morality — What is it that determines that right and wrong even exist or have any meaning? So I contend that apart from God, there literally is no such thing as objective right or wrong, good or evil. At best, we only have a set of social conventions that we call morality that are similar to other social conventions, such as which side of the road to drive on.

          There’s nothing actually *wrong* with driving on the left side of the road in the U.S (though it’s not very wise), although the government and people of this country have agreed together that this is a bad thing to do. Apart from God’s existence, any moral rule one could name will fall into this same category — a personal decision or societal agreement. But note that there’s nothing objective about these agreements at all. Thus, murder or rape may be socially unacceptable (on this view), but there’s nothing literally wrong with these actions.

          On theism, however, God’s perfectly good nature is the objective ground of right and wrong, and these standards don’t change, regardless of any person’s or group’s opinion of them. Rape is always morally evil, and kindness is always morally good. Apart from God, morality is some kind of illusion, as Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson admit:

          “Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. . . . In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. Ethics is produced by evolution but is not justified by it because, like Macbeth’s dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance . . . . Unlike Macbeth’s dagger, ethics is a shared illusion of the human race.” (“The Evolution of Ethics,” in Philosophy of Biology [Macmillan, 1989]).

          Where Ruse and Wilson claim morality is “without external grounding” and doesn’t exist “in substance,” that is precisely what I’m disagreeing with. Because if they are right, then saying “Kindness is good” is the same as saying “Vanilla is good” or “I prefer red to green.” Someone can say, “I try to pursue love and kindness,” and someone else can say, “I try to pursue greed and hedonistic pleasure,” and there is no objective standard for saying the former is good and latter is morally bankrupt. These categories simply don’t exist (in reality) and have no meaning (in reality).

          All the best,
          Chris

        • botogol,

          About racism, it’s not condoned in either the Old or New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God told Israel to care for the foreigners (non-Israelites) among them:

          “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Lev. 19:34

          In the New Testament, Paul wrote:

          “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal. 3:28

          Chris

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