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From Jon

This week in his “Question of the Week,” William Lane Craig brings some clarity to place of the Old Testament in relationship to the moral argument. You can view the post here.

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Eli, it looks like we can break your post down into general points: first, morality can’t come from God; second, God sets a poor moral example anyway.

You pose something like the classical objection to theistic morality, the Euthyphro Dilemma, when you said that

First, we have to ask ourselves where absolute morality comes from in a Christian universe. There are only two choices: 1) Morality is somehow woven into the fabric of the universe and is separate from God.  This being is perfectly moral and follows this mystical code without failure. 2) This  absolute morality that Craig is so fond of is actually created by God and is absolute in so far as  God is absolute.

Socrates said it like this: “Is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?” The implications of this dillema are tremendous. If God loves what is good because it is good, then goodness exists outside of God. Goodness is something external to God that he desries. In this case, when it comes to moral issues, we could just skip God and go straight to what is good. God would be unnecessary for moral goodness in this view. So that forces us to the other horn of the dilemma. If something is good just because God wills it to be, then goodness arbitrary. God could have willed that we eat all firstborn children. And this would not be a pleasant experience for the eater or the eaten. Further, it just seems flat ridficulous to think that something like canbialism could be considered morally good in any possible universe. So then, we theist have a problem don’t we?

Well, maybe not.

And while it’s rare thing to say, I think in this case Socrates had it wrong. The reason is rather straightforward: the Euthyphro Dillemma is a false one. A true dillema is when you are offered only two choices. Let me show you a true dillemma:

Either (A) Barak Obama is reptilian shape shifter from another dimension, or (~A) he is not a  reptilian shape shifter from another dimension.

A true dilemma only arises when there are really only two choices. Either it is A or not A. Socrates’s dillema could be written like this:

Either (A) something is loved by God because it is good, or (B) it is good because it is loved by God.

Since Socrates uses the form of Either A or B instead of Either A or not A, his dillemma doesn’t really have only two horns. In fact, I think we might add a C to the Euthyphro Dillemma.

Either (A) something is loved by God because it is good,  (B) it is good because it is loved by God, or (C) something is good when it is consistent with God’s nature.

Before I suggest that (C) is our best choice, I ought to first show why (A) and (B) are not good choices, not just for theist, but also the atheist. First, (A) is actually making a assumption about the nature of goodness that I think is impossible. It is suggesting that God is subject to a law of moral goodness that exists independently of him. The problem here concerns the relevancy of a impersonal, cosmic moral law. How could this moral law have any relevance to us or to God? It has no rights over us. It contributes nothing to the universe, can feel nothing, expects nothing, and demands nothing. In way, it’s like this:

A game of checkers between two friends, Tom and Lisa, is progressing along nicely. Lisa makes a move, a move she had been planning for half a dozen turns now, and jumps three of Tom’s checkers. Tom objects and says, “You can’t do that because I have a full house!”  Now, we know it’s ridiculous for Tom to try to apply the rules of poker in game of checkers. In the same way, it would be ridiculous to suppose that the “good” presupposed in (A) would be relevant to God or us. Just because other “rules” exist doesn’t make them applicable in a particular situation. And there are other, deeper issues with (A) that I’ll leave alone for now. But let me pose this simple question before we move to (B): Is the kind of goodness assumed in (A) even logically possible? It is even possible that goodness could exist like (A) presupposes it does?

Now for (B). First, I think it’s worth pointing out that (B) is not problematic for a theist (some theologians might recognize it as rather awkwardly stated version of the Divine Command Theory). It’s perfectly logical and fine to say that God determines (in  the sense that he chooses based on his desire) what is good. The trouble is that (B) creates some concern about goodness being arbitrary. What is evil could be considered good, if God just happened to be in a bad mood that day. This concern actually arises out of a misunderstanding of two issues: (1) what the word goodness means and (2) what it means for God to declare something good or evil. So (B) might be something that could be affirmed by a theist, if it had a little more nuance. In order to give it that nuance, let’s first address issue (1).

Perhaps the best definition of goodness is this: goodness is whatever is appropriate or proper. Goodness is revealed in relationships.[1] This means that love (which a morally good action) is the proper relationship between two beings. Justice, in a legal context, is the appropriate relationship between citizens and the society. Respect is the proper relationship between two or more parties. Hate would be the improper relationship between two beings. So would lust and selfishness. Such is the case with the rest of the virtues and vices.

A morality is a kind of spectrum. On one end there is evil (or inappropriate actions) and on the other end is goodness (or appropriate actions). That is simply what the words good and evil mean. They describe degrees of propriety and impropriety. But that scale is meaningless unless it is attached to some moral system that gives substance to the terms “good” and “evil.” (In utilitarianism, for example, goodness is whatever produces maximum happiness for the maximum number of people).

Christians argue that goodness can be given its substance by the nature of God. Whatever God is, he must be good, appropriate, and proper. That is what he is by definition – the being greater than which none other can be conceived. Augustus Strong held that the divine attributes, like perfect goodness, have an “objective existence” and are essential to the divine essence.[2] Now those terms, good and evil, have meaning.

So it is God’s nature that determines the actions and desires he has. And since God’s nature is perfectly good, all his moral commands are also perfectly good. They are not arbitrary. In a sense, when God declares a moral law, he is revealing part of his nature in a concrete way. When God commands human beings not to murder, he is telling us something about his nature. The ethics of God let us see his very heart. And what we find is that God values life, righteousness, truth, and justice.

Also, man is obligated to obey God “in view of his being a creature in God’s world.”[3] But if God were to disappear, then so would the standard of moral rightness (not to mention or obligation to behave morally, another reason why (A) is insufficient).[4] The moral spectrum would be without substance.

If God gives his commands to mankind out of his “unchangingly good character,”[5] then the divine command theory escapes the Euthyphro Dilemma and is a sound ethical system. On this view, goodness is not arbitrarily decided by God and neither is God subject to some external moral code. And we can thus affirm (C): something is good when it is in harmony with God’s nature.

Now let’s address your section objection: God sets a poor moral example. (I have to wonder here: by what standard do you object? What measure do you use to declare Christian ethics inadequate? But that’s another questions for another time.)  To make this argument, you have two lines of evidence: the God of the OT is inconsistent with the God of the NT and God’s moral commands are actually immoral.

The God of the OT is not inconsistent with the God the NT. However, I will grant that there are some differences in how God interacts with world from the OT to the NT. These differences are due to a number of reasons. First, in the OT  much of the text deals with God’s relationship to a theocratic state and God’s requirements for that state. And while God still has a plan for Israel, she is no longer a theocracy as such.

And this is not an idea imposed on the bible in order to reconcile contradictions. This is idea present in both the OT and the New. For example, Jeremiah proclaims that

“The time is coming,” declares the LORD,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah. (Jer. 31:31)

The difference between the presence of the theocratic state in the OT and the lack of it in the New explains the majority of apparent differences. Let’s take the issue of homosexuality that you brought up as an example. You quoted Lev. 20:13 which reads:

If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads (NIV).

There is a similar statement in the NT:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion (Romans 1:26-27 NIV).

But notice that there is a very key difference. In the NT, there is no capital death penalty associated with homosexuality. Paul states that there is still a penalty (in Rom. 6:23, Paul lets us know that penalty of any sin is death), but it is not a legal one. This is because there is no theocratic state to enforce that penalty. In the OT, God judged sin directly through the state of Israel. Now that no such theocratic state exists, no injunction for capital punishment exists. But in the NT, God still judges sin; however, he longer does it through the state of Israel.

The theocracy of Israel was temporary. It had a purpose to fulfill; once it was fulfilled, God began the next stage (some call this stage in God’s redemptive plan the “Church Age.”) in his plan of redemption (For a brief exaplnation of these stages in God’s redemptive plan, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dispensation_(period)). God’s moral character never changes. How that character is articulated or expressed might change depending on  the stage in God’s redemptive plan.

It’s important to realize that this shows continuity with character of God rather than contradiction. In both the OT and the NT, God will judge the sins of the world. In the OT, God often chose to judge sin immediately through the state of Israel. And since it was a state, there were laws that corresponded to this. In the NT, God remains as judge, but he postpones his judgment until after the return of Christ. However, he still will utilize direct and immediate judgment if it is appropriate for him to do so (See Acts 5:1-10).

But the most dramatic picture of the justice of God is not found in the OT, but in the New. The passion of Christ was to satisfy the justice of God: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice…” (Romans 3:25). What we see demonstrated throughout the bible is the incredible balance between God’s love and his justice.

So there is no disconnect between the God of the OT and the God of the New. They are very much the same.

Your second of line of evidence concerns specific moral issues like the treatment of women, the Canaanite Conquest,  the issue of slavery, and divine judgment, the role of religion in the world, among other issues. These are great issues to raise and I think there are substantive and satisfactory Christian responses to all these issues, but trying to address them all in this blog post is probably too ambitious. If you’d like to raise one or two of these issues in your next post, I’d be happy to discuss it.

Thanks for the great conversation, brother.

Jon


[1]Millard Erikson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998). 309.

[2] Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge: Judson, 1907), 244-5.

[3]Oliver Barclay, “The Nature of Christian Morality,” in  Readings in Christian Ethics, edited by David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw(Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 1994), 48.

[4]Copan, 88.

[5] Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay (Downers Grover: InterVarsity, 2000), 250.

atheists have morals?


One of the few substantive atheist attempts to explain morality. However, I think he ultimately fails, but I would like to hear your thoughts if you have time mate.

Love,

Jon

Eli’s Response

I enjoyed it because it presented a calm, logical explanation about the nature of morality. A majority of people would argue that morality is god-given and without God “all things are possible” as Dostoevsky famously said. Harris shows that morality can essentially be reduced to empathy and that it is a discipline we must all practice. Here is a link to a lecture where a scientist shows that this trait isn’t even unique to humans, though humans have a much more highly evolved sense of empathy.http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/robert_sapolsky_the_uniqueness_of_humans.html

He also touches on the failings of organized religion in relation to what most people in the enlightened Western world would consider moral. The subjugation of women in Islam is the most glaring example, but recently Catholics have been back in the news for protecting child rapist and avoiding secular punishment by refusing to help secular authorities bring these monsters to justice.

We’ve been through a lot of these arguments before, and I can imagine you’re biggest complaint will probably be that Harris can’t find any “objective” basis for morality so it is ultimately meaningless. It is a good objection, in fact it is the only one that has really caused me any significant cognitive dissonance. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I think I have a decent reply: Where does God’s moral authority come from? Since God created the universe and decided what is right and wrong how is his idea about what is right or wrong any more valid than anyone else’s? Well, I imagine you would say that God is an “objective” being who is perfectly synced into the universe and is morally correct by his very nature. That begs the question, why does the universe itself seem to have this innate moral code? And do we have to have God to do what is right?

I’m not sure how well I got my point across and I’m sure you will be able to find some gaping holes in my logic, but give me break. I’m just an accountant. Anyway, I hope that gives something to ponder, and I’m sure you’ll likely obliterate it in one fell swoop (maybe two if I argued well.)

Love,

Eli

Jon’s Response

I haven’t watched the video yet, but I think I can safely say that empathy is not moral. It is an emotion, like anger, which is amoral. Empathy can lead to both good and evil actions. For example, a mullah, out of empathy for his raped daughter, might kill her to spare her the shame of being defiled.

But on to Harris’ video (sorry for the rather dark opening. Take a moment and imagine that you are unicorn riding on a rainbow….. Okay, now resume.). I see three specific problems with his theory. Actually, I do think that Harris’ system is not objective. The problem is that the terms are not defined. In particular, what does “well being” mean? Harris suggests that we rely on at least two different sources: intuition and moral experts. I would agree that intuition is a powerful force that informs us of what is right and wrong. But intuition is not authoritative or objective. We may think a certain action is right, but our thinking it is right doesn’t make it right.

He also suggests that we appeal to moral experts like we appeal to great scientists. But the problem here is that moral experts don’t work with empirically verifiable information. Einstein was great not because he had a beautiful idea about the universe, but because his beautiful idea worked and can be verified. Suppose that we take the Dali Lama as a candidate for being a moral expert. Many would agree that the Dali Lama increases or encourages well being in conscious beings, and is therefore qualified to be a moral expert. However, the Chinese disagree. They think that his religious teachings destroy the fabric of the state and create disharmony and frustration among the people. So there are conflicting moral constructs. What makes the Dali Lama right and the Chinese wrong? Surely it can’t be that more people are inclined to agree with the Dali Lama. That’s not how science works. If it did, we’d still think the earth was flat. What is moral or what constitutes well being cannot be defined by intuitive consensus or moral experts.

It sees that Harris suggests that well being can be scientifically determined. But that is doubtful. It seems a little like saying: “Science can tell us why art is beautiful.” Perhaps science can tell us that we have certain predispositions to particular colors and shapes, but it cannot grasp beauty. The same is true here: perhaps science can help us understand what sorts of environments produce maximally satisfied beings, but that is hardly moral. And there is another, more grim problem. Harris admits that our moral obligations to certain species to the degree that they are conscious. What about babies, the elderly, or mentally retarded people? What happens when we let the potential for conscious experience determine our moral obligations? It seems like certain classes of people might be deemed sub-human. We’ve seen where that sort of thinking can take us.

Second, and I think this objection is more important and easier to understand than the first, Harris system does not obligate humans to do what is morally right. For the sake of the argument, suppose that Harris has provided a way that we can determine what is morally correct in an objective way. Great job Harris! But so what? Why should I do what is morally correct? What is my obligation? Rightness and wrongness have no intrinsic meaning in themselves. They simply describe two ends of a spectrum. Why prefer one end to the other? Why good instead of evil? Even if morality can exist objectively apart from God, for it to be meaningful, it must also oblige me to obey it. Otherwise, it is useless. Imagine that you could break the natural law at will. No one would consider it improper to do so. And you would not consider yourself a bad person if you did. If morality exists objectively apart from God (and is thus another component of natural law), if you could suspend the moral law from applying to yourself, why wouldn’t you?

Third, and this objection flows from the first two, Harris’ system has a “meta-problem.” What I mean is that Harris’ moral imperative “act in such a way that produces the maximum well being in other conscious beings” cannot be supported by his own system. What makes his moral imperative moral? Why is it obligatory? There is no meta-explanation for this maxim. It just sort of floats in space without any justification.

Now, concerning your objection God as the source of morality.
There are actually several different theories concerning the origin of morality in Christianity. Some subscribe to the divine command theory which states that God arbitrarily decides what is good and what is bad. It is by declaration of God that a thing is either good or bad. Personally, I don’t hold to that view.

I would describe goodness this way: goodness is whatever is appropriate or proper. This means that love (which a morally good action) is the proper relationship between two beings. Justice, in a legal context, is the appropriate relationship between citizens and the society. Respect is the proper relationship between two or more parties. Hate would be the improper relationship between two beings. So would lust and selfishness. And you could go on with all the rest of the virtues and vices.

But what does it mean to say something is appropriate or proper? It means that is consistent with God’s nature. When I say I love another person, I mean that I am acting toward them in a way that is consistent with God’s nature. Goodness is whatever is consistent with God’s nature. Evil is whatever is disharmonious with God’s nature. When I act with goodness, I act properly, as God (or Jesus) would if he were in my place.

It’s sort of like this: A morality is a kind of spectrum. On one end there is evil (or inappropriate actions) and on the other end is goodness (or appropriate actions). That is simply what the words good and evil mean. They describe degrees of propriety and impropriety. But that scale is meaningless unless it is attached to some moral system that gives substance to the terms “good” and “evil.” (In utilitarianism, for example, goodness is whatever produces maximum happiness for the maximum number of people).
What I suggest is that goodness be given its substance by the nature of God. Whatever God is, he must be good, appropriate, and proper. Now those terms have meaning. Appropriateness is acting in a way consistent with God’s nature.

So it is God’s nature that determines morality. But it is not arbitrary and neither is God subject to some external moral code. And if God were to disappear, then so would the standard of moral rightness (not to mention or obligation to behave morally). If God is not, then the moral spectrum is without substance.

Love,

Jon