Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Deity-Free Moral Challenge

The debate about the origin of morality has been beaten to death by a dead Calvary of horses. They aren't recently dead either, rigamortis set in long ago. Anything you or I can say about the merits of grass roots societal goodness or objective moral truths, has been said before--and I hate being unoriginal.

In an effort to avoid rehashing the claims of people far smarter than I, even though I came to said claims completely organically, I have two options. First, I could hang up my argumentative guns and ride into the sunset confident that I'm right while unwilling to engage the opposition--but I run a freakin' atheist blog, so obviously that's not going to happen. I'm left with option two. Much like Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru, I must alter the parameters of the argument. Instead of debating why we have morality, I'd like to debate why we share (or don't share) specific morals.

The Challenge

If you believe the only way to explain common morality is by appealing to a higher power, it must be that you can't think of natural, human reasons to be good. If you could, then those reasons should be all the explanation you need. To defend your position, I ask you to submit a moral situation for which only God can be the explanation for why a reasonable person would do the right thing. In return, I will offer an entirely human answer for the moral choice I, and likely many others, would make.

The moral situation should be fairly straight forward to best make your point, if, of course, you can stump me. An ambiguous moral situation is more likely to draw different choices from different people, and would only contribute to the idea of subjective morality. If you think your choice for the ambiguous moral situation is the objectively correct choice, that's only you elevating your opinion to the status of truth and there is likely no way to prove your moral high ground without referencing the Bible, which I don't accept. So, to sum up, I'll accept situations where one pushes an elderly convict into a child, thereby pushing the kid out of the way of an oncoming train and dooming the old fella, but...let's try to stick to scenarios both likely to happen and without too many moving parts.


  1. theist takers I see. Funny how that happens in situations like this.

    1. Let's be honest, my only regular readers are atheists. I'll direct theists who bring up morality in the future here, but it may take a while.

  2. I think the christian response would be that morality comes from a higher power even if you don't know it. They would try to short circuit your challenge. God has imprinted morality on the hearts of all people. "The fact that you can find a human reason to be moral proves that God exists" or some other such nonsense.

    1. I agree, the common response could be "a reasonable person would do the good thing in X situation, but it is only "good" because God made it good, and God created people with the sense to know good from evil".

      Obviously a cop-out, but I can see Christians going that route.

    2. Since there are natural reasons for our moral actions, it's impossible to claim that God is any more necessary for moral actions than he is for actions in general.

      We define "good" and "evil" as what is either beneficial or harmful to us and society. They define "good" and "evil" as concepts pre-existing those who can define them.

  3. Hi Grundy,

    If "good" = "beneficial to society" without remainder, then why not be a nihilist? Why maintain the language of "good"?

    Put it another way... if someone came on the blog and said "I believe in God, but "God" for me is whatever supreme power rules the cosmos (the four fundamental forces or whatever). Wouldn't you say "You're stretching the term beyond its meaningful usage. It'd be better to call yourself an atheist/naturalist/whatever. Anything but a believer in "God." Wouldn't you?

    Don't get me wrong, I think it's a perfectly respectable intellectual position to ditch both "God" and "good" in the traditional sense. I just wonder whether you can ditch both without altering the meaning of terms such that they obscure rather than explain.

  4. Sorry, last sentence should read: "I just wonder whether you can ditch only one without altering the meaning of the term (i.e. the term "good"), such that it obscures rather than explains.

  5. Christthetruth,

    Are you trying to say that the entire concept of good and bad is meaningless without God? That seems like quite a statement to me. Am I misunderstanding you?

  6. Hausdorff,

    I'm just applying what Grundy has already said about our definitions of good and evil. Grundy wrote:

    "We define "good" and "evil" as what is either beneficial or harmful to us and society. They define "good" and "evil" as concepts pre-existing those who can define them."

    I'm not saying there isn't an atheist /concept/ of "good and evil" but since it's grounded so very differently from the Christian vision, why not use different words so we're all clear?

    Just think about that second term for a second. Through millennia of religious use, the word "evil" has a deep resonance that, surely, as materialists, you're uncomfortable with? Why not free yourself from those connotations and simply call it "harmful" if that's the full extent of what you mean?

    (PS - I can't seem to find a way to sign into comments, so forgive me if I don't respond right away. I'll try to check back later).

    1. I'm not going to argue over definitions. I can't find a dictionary or a person who isn't an apologist who defines good and bad with any link to God. The same goes for the words right and wrong. You may be right about the use of the word evil, so I won't use that word anymore for clarity.

      So, given the definition of a moral that isn't specifically Christian, care to try the challenge? Or do you admit that a natural reason can be found for every moral action?

  7. I don't believe that "the only way to explain a common morality is by appealing to a higher power", so I'm not sure the challenge really applies to me. Of course I (and every Christian must) disagree that "a natural reason can be found for every moral action." As an obvious example, the first table of the 10 commandments is all about love for God - even including such culturally specific ordinances like Sabbath!

    Ethical action for the Christian is first oriented towards *God*.

    Having said that, of course a society might reason its way towards all kinds of common ethical commitments via virtue ethics, teleological arguments and deontological arguments (even naturalists could argue for deontological ethics - e.g. do it cos the state says so). But then, so what? Everyone justifies what they do, if only to themselves. If you think self-justification en masse is a solid foundation for morality, go for your life. We all do it naturally anyway.

    But the thing is, the greatest evildoers in history have done their worst *because* they're full of reasons, higher callings, righteous indignation, love for a greater good. And as they justify their atrocities (often by virtue of its benefits to society at large - or at least the society they are creating!) the death count mounts.

    I realize that some Christians want to appeal to an ethical "true north" setting, deep within every human heart. And I realise they then try to build on that foundation as an argument for A LawGiver.

    Thing is, even with the obvious taboo: murder - cultures like the Aztecs or even Nazis, did not consider it off limits at all. I don't think you can build on our common morality. If there's one thing you can point to about our morality it's our universal self-justifying selfishness. This is why I appreciate the findings of evolutionary psychology so much. They re-inforce what the bible's been saying for millennia - all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

    The human race does not need more schemes to justify its morality. We need God to justify us because of our immorality. This is what Jesus offers, and it's utterly unique.

    1. Thanks for the well worded and thoughtful comment. If you don't believe that we have an ethical "true north" set up by God, then you are right, this challenge doesn't apply to you. In fact, it sounds like you think morality is subjective, it is only objective within the confines of Christianity. Would that be accurate?

    2. It sounds like you are saying the human morality can't be used to prove Christianity correct, but if Christianity is correct, then our moral code comes from God. Is that right?

  8. Hi Grundy,
    Yes, while I believe that there *is* an ethical true north - I don't think we can argue from the read-outs on our own compasses (which are faulty).

    I don't think that Christianity is particularly confined. I think that Christ makes claims on the whole world. But I'm not interested in either a) arguing from "universal morality" to Christ, or b) telling non-Christians to behave as though they were.

    Christianity is the good news that the Good God has become a Good Man, died the Bad Death we deserve, risen again to the Good Life we could never achieve by ourselves and invites us all into this Good Life. I don't tell non-Christians to live the Good Life, because only Jesus did it. But I do tell them to look to Jesus who did it for them. Morality just aint the Christian message (check out the creeds - not a *word* about our ethical duties!)

    You said "It sounds like you are saying the human morality can't be used to prove Christianity correct, but if Christianity is correct, then our moral code comes from God. Is that right?"

    That's basically it. The direction of travel for me is not up the mountain but down. I'm more interested in saying "Listen, before the world began there was a community of selfless love (Father, Son and Spirit), Persons in relationship, life poured out for the other, minds, wills, purpose, community, sharing, reciprocity - this was the life of the triune God which birthed the cosmos. Now... if that's what ultimate reality is, doesn't that make a lot of sense out of our experiences of what's best in life (i.e. morality)?"

    I don't argue: "We all know X, Y, Z - let me logically deduce some omniBeing from this certain knowledge." (I hate that stuff, I probably blog as angrily about that as you do!) I'm more into saying "For the sake of argument, imagine the Christian vision of reality is true, now doesn't our experience of X, Y and Z seem to make a whole lot more sense within *that* paradigm (as opposed to a Muslim or Pagan or Naturalistic paradigm, or whatever).


    1. Interesting take, Glen. I see the assumption of a Christian God as making less sense than more. We have the bible showing God not acting according to his own morality. We have the problem of suffering and the problem of fairness (notice that I'm not using the word evil anymore.) Without God, the only problem is gaps in human knowledge that we will likely fill one day in the future.

      Like you said, I mostly blog against apologetic abuse of logic. If your beliefs are based on faith rather then reason, I honestly don't get it, but there is no reason for us to debate. As long as your Christianity doesn't interfere with my life, carry on.

    2. christthetruth:

      I enjoyed reading your interaction with Grundy here. I don't really have anything to add as the questions that popped into my mind for you were asked by Grundy, but I really appreciate your thoughtful responses.

  9. My own conversion to Christianity started when things started to make less sense. I kept digging to figure out why folks put so much into it. It turns out its not something easy to understand. You either have to take it on authority or put in some hard work to figure out the nuance. Or ignore it. Id encourage you to keep digging if you're interested in it. There is a wealth of great intellectualism and insight to the heart of people. My first hint to you would be that the bible isn't a rule book. In fact it makes a mockery of those trying to keep the rules.

    1. "My first hint to you would be that the bible isn't a rule book. In fact it makes a mockery of those trying to keep the rules."

      I found this statement very intriguing, I'm wondering if you can elaborate. When you say it makes a mockery what do you mean? Can you give an example?

      Also, I have come across a lot of Christians who say that the bible is a rule book. It's supposedly a bunch of instruction from God on how to live. If this is not how you think of the bible, then what is the bible for? Or put another way, how should a good Christian use his bible? What should he get out of it?

  10. Hey Grundy,

    * I'm glad you agree that suffering is a problem. But why do *you* think it's a problem? If there's a standard of goodness, truth and beauty from which suffering is a perversion, I understand why there's a "problem." But if all there is in the world is struggle for survival, dog-eat-dog and energy acting on matter - then suffering isn't a problem, it just is. It's the Christian who can actually acknowledge the evil of evil. The naturalist can only say "Bummer."

    * Faith and reason are not alternatives. We all reason from certain commitments that cannot be reasoned towards, but must be assumed. The question is not whether we have faith, but what we have faith in.

    * The god of the gaps is no god worthy of the name. "God" is not a codeword for scientific ignorance. He is the Source of all life and being.

    In the history of orthodox Christian theology, the bible has *never* been seen as a rule book. Only the most simplistic fundamentalism could see it as such (though simplistic fundamentalists do get around, I'll admit!). The bible is a testimony to God's action in the world first through Israel (God's people) and then through Jesus (God's Son). Again, morality is nowhere near the centre of gravity for Christianity. The "gospel" literally means "good news." It's about the events of God coming to us in Jesus and demonstrating that, even to the point of death, He is utterly for us.

    That'll do me for now. I hope to drop in on the blog in future and read the thoughtful posts here. Thanks for the positive interaction. Peace.

    1. Ah, now you're sounding like an apologist I can recognize. Why do you all ask why I think suffering is a problem? Have none of you ever suffered? It's more than a bummer. The fact that I hate suffering and wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy is plenty reason for it to be a problem, but only in a worldview with a loving God. I accept that life is random and horrible things happen for little or no reason.

  11. *I was wondering why the only two "solutions" are "bummer, dog eat dog", or a supernatural explanation for "evil"? Bad things happen. Good things happen. Were all in this together in my humble opinion, and it's kind of our duty to try to make this world a better place for the other's in our lives.

    *I think there is a difference myself. I would argue that someone might say that we have "faith" that the sun will rise tomorrow. I would say that there is a very high probability it will based on billions of years of the same thing happening, but we don't really know. The sun could explode tomorrow.

    *I think on the "god of the gaps" thing, there might be a misunderstanding. When someone refers to the "god of the gaps" it's usually pointing out people who will say, "Oh, we don't understand it, it must be divine." A long time ago, diseases were thought to be from God, then Germ Theory came along. We know its caused by deficiencies in vitamins or germs. When someone proclaims that we don't understand something that has occurred or doesn't understand it themselves, they will say "God did it." Correct me if I am wrong. This is usually the context I hear the God of the gaps in. It's also because the "God hypothesis" isn't falsifiable.

    I do enjoy these meaningful discussions and it's really nice to have a dialogue with someone whom I disagree with without any shouting or name calling. I always love hearing different points of view. :)

  12. I did respond to this challenge back on my blog.