Monday, June 16, 2014

Incomplete & Circular Apologetic Definitions

Are you healthy? I don’t know much about you, reader, but if you are the average American your answer is probably close to “sure...I guess” or maybe even a straight up “I don’t know.” That’s because the term “healthy” is an imprecise word that means different things to different people. A judgement of health, when poorly defined, is subjective and not very meaningful. If, on the other hand, I asked if you are overweight then provided a scale, tape measure, and the calculation to determine your Body Mass Index, we could objectively see if your BMI is over 25 and therefore overweight.

In debates with religious apologists, I’ve noticed their moral arguments rely on the imprecise meaning of right and wrong--of good and evil. Ask them to define them clearly and you will be met with resistance. Define them secularly and those meanings will be dismissed. Push, and you will likely hear one of two meanings.

  1. Good or evil are inherent properties of the action in question.
  2. That which is right is that which we have a moral obligation to God to do and that which is wrong is that which we have a moral obligation to God to refrain from.

Let’s take the first one first. “Good or evil are inherent properties of the action in question.” The first problem is that most will latter disagree with the definition they provided. If evilness or wrongness is an inherent property of lying or killing, then it can’t ever be right. However, they will almost certainly agree that lying to protect others or killing in self defense isn’t wrong or evil. In Catholicism there is something called The Principle of Double Effect which allows Catholics to break commandments to achieve what they judge to be the greater good. Hell, most theists in America support the death penalty, that should tell you something.

The second problem is that the property definition is incomplete. It’s like explaining to a child that wetness is a property of water without ever getting into what it means to be wet. Wetness could mean it’s liquid, it could mean it’s clear, it could mean it’s made of molecules. What does the property of good or evil say about the actions? From here they might falter and give secular reasons regarding a harm vs. benefit analysis of the actions, which would negate the perceived need for a deity entirely, or they might move to the previously mentioned secondary definition.

“That which is right is that which we have a moral obligation to God to do and that which is wrong is that which we have a moral obligation to God to refrain from.” Not only does this mean nothing to anyone who doesn’t already believe and therefore has no persuasive power, it also undermines the moral argument entirely. Assigning morality a definition that assumes God exists, cannot then be used to demonstrate that God exists. It is a simple example of circular reasoning. The crazy thing is, I’ve heard many apologists be fine with that--to the point that they ask “what’s wrong with circular reasoning?” Jesus Christ!

Don’t follow apologists down the moral rabbit hole until you know just what they mean by right and wrong. Depending on how these terms are framed, morality can be subjective, objective, relative, conceptual, nonsensical or anything in between.


  1. I always ask "right and wrong according to who?" They can't provide an objective answer, it's always an opinion and we know what they say about opinions. Therefore, until they can demonstrate that they have an objective view of what makes something right and what makes something wrong, nothing they have to say on the subject is really worth listening to.

  2. Its a huge problem when debating theists who have argued before (newbies are easier) to get them to agree on anything. This I believe is due to the simple fact that they know that with set definitions that they are certain to lose the debate. Its like another form of cognitive dissonance.