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God and the moral argument

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Split from Manalive topic.

Certainly, moral laws are easier to justify when based in religion. It requires no defense other than "God says..."

I'm not entirely sure how you mean this, but it suggests to me two ideas with which (following Chesterton) I would take exception. First, I would argue that in the absence of religious considerations, there are no moral laws, there are only only irrationally conditioned impulses and self-interest ("If God does not exist, all things are permissible"). Second, I would argue against reducing a religious interpretation of morality to divine command theory ("God says..."). But like I said I'm not sure how you meant it.

Edited by SDG

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But like I said I'm not sure how you meant it.

My pgeneral point is that justification of laws may certainly be easier with religious dogma. They are not, however, the only way you can justify laws. This idea that if there is no God there can be no morality is merely religionist fantasy.

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This idea that if there is no God there can be no morality is merely religionist fantasy.

I didn't say there could be no morality. I said there could be no moral laws. Laws have compulsory or obligatory force. They are normative, not just descriptive. They set forth what is permissible or impermissible, not just what is conducive or not conducive to a particular set of goals.

How was Dostoyevsky wrong? What does "impermissible" mean if there is no God?

Edited by SDG

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How was Dostoyevsky wrong? What does "impermissible" mean if there is no God?

not permissible or allowable; unallowable.

I am unaware of a definition to the word that requires any deity.

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How was Dostoyevsky wrong? What does "impermissible" mean if there is no God?

not permissible or allowable; unallowable.

I am unaware of a definition to the word that requires any deity.

The search for meaning and the search for a definition are two different things. I can define "unicorn"; it doesn't mean there are any. Likewise, I can define "square circle"; it doesn't mean there's a cogent concept there.

To ask "What does impermissible mean?" in this context is to ask: not permissible or allowable in relation to what, or with respect to what? Violations of the law of gravity are disallowed by the physical nature of reality; they are simply not possible. Violations of the laws of justice and charity are eminently possible, indeed commonplace. The law of gravity is simply a description of how bodies in fact behave; the laws of justice and charity are not descriptions of how persons in fact behave -- far from it. So what does it mean to call them "laws"?

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How was Dostoyevsky wrong? What does "impermissible" mean if there is no God?

not permissible or allowable; unallowable.

I am unaware of a definition to the word that requires any deity.

The search for meaning and the search for a definition are two different things. I can define "unicorn"; it doesn't mean there are any. Likewise, I can define "square circle"; it doesn't mean there's a cogent concept there.

True. But really, it's not hard to formulate reasons that all things cannot be permissible for the benefit of society and evolution of the species. It's not like, "Gee, without God, how can you claim rape is wrong? Or murder?"

It is not fear of God's wrath or a belief that it is what God wants that drives me to have compassion for people. My belief in God may be interwined with that, but it's my belief that God has to be better, greater than we currently portray Him to be. That "For God so loved the world..." means something more... something... grand.

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True. But really, it's not hard to formulate reasons that all things cannot be permissible for the benefit of society and evolution of the species.

Okay, now we have a referent: All things are not permissible with respect to concern the benefit of society and evolution of the species. And when and where we agree that our behavior should be ordered or governed by such concern, we may get along swimmingly.

But who says those concerns get top priority over all other possible concerns? A small but growing number of people have a preference for the idea of planet going on without any human beings at all. The membership of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement may be small, but their sentiments and general presuppositions are becoming more thinkable to more and more people. Peter Singer has spoken approvingly of a scenario in which all human beings everywhere are sterilized, which, IIRC, he argues could greatly improve the quality of life for that last generation of humans, not to mention the species that survive us. In a world without God, how do you say that you are "right" and they are "wrong"?

It's not like, "Gee, without God, how can you claim rape is wrong? Or murder?"

Why? Just because you and I agree they're both repugnant?

It is not fear of God's wrath or a belief that it is what God wants that drives me to have compassion for people.

Nor me. But it is my belief in God's eternal nature (not his wrath or his commands) that makes me believe that my impulse to compassion is meaningful and has obligatory implications for my behavior. Otherwise I would regard it as an impulse, no more and no less interesting and important than other more selfish impulses, to be gratified insofar as I perceive it as contributing to my happiness and quality of life, and at times resisted in favor of other impulses that might offer more happiness and quality of life.

My belief in God may be interwined with that, but it's my belief that God has to be better, greater than we currently portray Him to be. That "For God so loved the world..." means something more... something... grand.

Hm. This sounds not entirely divergent from what I might say ... I suspect we may more or less agree on the inadequacies of some religious interpretations of morality, if not on the theoretical adequacy of attempts to ground moral law in a naturalistic worldview.

That makes the enormous assumption that we know what societal/evolutionary progress looks like, and that we know what is "good" for evolution--as if evolution, which is essentially a set of blind alleys, can really be said to have some kind of good as its end goal--and what isn't.
I don't think those questions are as naive as you make them out to be.

What Ryan said.

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It's not like, "Gee, without God, how can you claim rape is wrong? Or murder?"

Why? Just because you and I agree they're both repugnant?

I think it goes beyond that. The concept of do unto others as you would have done to yourself applies well, with or without a deity. The logic of the command depends on what we suspect "most normal people" would want done to them. Sure, you can retort "Someone might want to be murdered!" But that challenge does not go away if you put God into the mix. Few people will favor being murdered or raped.

But I would also note that the idea that the Bible teaches us to respect human dignity is debatable. The idea that God considered the approproate punishment for a man raping a virgin that he marry his victim does not speak well of the Bible being a better source of authority in regards to the rule of law. The OT is, in fact full of supposed commands from God that have little respect for dignity or life... from the treatment of women and children as property of husbands and fathers. I spend days of my life trying to reconcile a book full of stories that leave me seeing God as more an abusive parent or husband than merciful saviour... and only find peace when I start to think the Bible is ultimately written by men...men who maybe misunderstood God as much as people can today. And maybe they wrote stuff down wrong. But as it stands, I cannot worship God as the modern Church (Protestant, Catholic, whomever) claims him to be. I feel like I am faced with the option of believe in nothing, trust that God is greater and more misunderstand than we could hope... or accept that God is as petty and selfish as humanity but with super powers. But the problem is, for me, I cannot stand in awe of a God as he is painted by the Church in which I have been raised. But frankly...we are getting far afield of the topic of the movie at this point.

(I felt a real kinship to Dan Back a couple years ago when he announced why he was stepping away from the boards)

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G.K. Chesterton wrote:

: An ape cannot be a priest, but a negro can be a priest.

FWIW, this statement, in the context of Chesterton's other remarks about the drift away from liberalism over the course of the 19th century, really leapt out at me. And the reason it leapt out at me is because I wrote a paper in my university days about an African bishop named Samuel Crowther, whose life basically spanned the 19th century (he was born in 1809 and died in 1891, so he had a toe in each decade at opposite ends of the century). As I recall, the early part of his career within the Anglican church was furthered along by a belief in English circles that the races were equal and that Africans needed to be overseen by a bishop of their own, rather than a bishop from overseas; but towards the end of the century, relations between the English and African branches of the church had grown somewhat strained as the English higher-ups came to believe in the inferiority of other races.

Was the racism encouraged by a belief in evolution? Well, possibly. But racism of this sort has also been propped up over the years by invocations of the Book of Genesis and the curse that Noah called down on his son Ham. You can't dismiss evolution just because it was used by racists any more than you can dismiss the Bible just because it was used by racists (and if we ARE going to start judging things along these lines, then the Bible might be worse off than evolution, since the biblical story is all about the bringing down of a curse on a specific person and at least some of his descendants, whereas evolution is morally neutral; the same adaptations that "favour" a "race" in one environment might be a detriment to that same race in another environment, and since every race and species is a complex web of adaptations, it really makes no sense to say that any one of those races is automatically superior to others, full stop).

SDG wrote:

: First, I would argue that in the absence of religious considerations, there are no moral laws, there are only only irrationally conditioned impulses and self-interest ("If God does not exist, all things are permissible"). . . .

: I didn't say there could be no morality. I said there could be no moral laws.

You did, however, go beyond that and say that there could only be "irrationally conditioned impulses and self-interest". But wouldn't many people argue that it IS possible to have a form of morality that is both atheistic and rational?

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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The concept of do unto others as you would have done to yourself applies well, with or without a deity.

What does "applies" mean? It applies if we want it to apply, it doesn't if we don't. Suppose I want to treat other people as I wouldn't want to be treated. Suppose that makes me happy. Suppose I am strong enough to get away with it. It works for me. Why shouldn't I do so?

But I would also note that the idea that the Bible teaches us to respect human dignity is debatable.

When did I invoke the Bible? You keep repairing to these religious theories of morality that I haven't invoked.

(I felt a real kinship to Dan Back a couple years ago when he announced why he was stepping away from the boards)

So did I. My faith, what I understand by "faith," has undergone serious shaking. Converting to Catholicism was trivial in comparison. I continue to cling to God, and one reason is that I am convinced that conscience speaks with divine authority. If there is no God, then the authority of conscience is an illusion, and moral impulses and considerations are just like any other impulses or considerations, no more to be privileged than any other.

: I didn't say there could be no morality. I said there could be no moral laws.

You did, however, go beyond that and say that there could only be "irrationally conditioned impulses and self-interest".

Yes, in a materialistic universe I would be willing to apply the term "morality" to a certain set of irrationally conditioned impulses and self-interest. I would not call them moral laws, however.

But wouldn't many people argue that it IS possible to have a form of morality that is both atheistic and rational?

Many would, yes. But if by this they mean moral laws with any obligatory force, they are deluded.

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But wouldn't many people argue that it IS possible to have a form of morality that is both atheistic and rational?

Yes.

First, let us say, a scientific man of the old normal nineteenth-century sort would remark, “We can at least have common sense, in its proper meaning of a sense of reality common to all; we can have common morals, for without them we cannot even have a community; a man must in the ordinary sense obey the law; and especially the moral law.” Then the newer sceptic, who is progressive and has gone further and fared worse, will immediately say, “Why should you worship the taboo of your particular tribe? Why should you accept prejudices that are the product of a blind herd instinct? Why is there any authority in the unanimity of a flock of frightened sheep?” Suppose the normal man falls back on the deeper argument: “I am not terrorised by the tribe; I do keep my independent judgment; I have a conscience and a light of justice within, which judges the world.” And the stronger sceptic will answer: “If the light in your body be darkness–and it is darkness because it is only in your body–what are your judgments but the incurable twist and bias of your particular heredity and accidental environment? What can we know about judgments, except that they must all be equally unjust? For they are all equally conditioned by defects and individual ignorances, all of them different and none of them distinguishable; for there exists no single man so sane and separate as to be able to distinguish them justly. Why should your conscience be any more reliable than your rotting teeth or your quite special defect of eyesight? God bless us all, one would think you believed in God!”
- G.K. Chesterton, "The Return to Religion," The Well and the Shallows

If no set of moral ideas were better than another, there would be no sense in preferring civilised morality to Nazi morality. The moment you say one lot of morals is better than another, you are in fact measuring them by an ultimate standard.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

I actually think this whole discussion can be cleared up by using the terms morality and moral law more strictly. Simply put, we have here two sorts of ideas about morality:

#1 - natural law - an absolute and universal moral law that could only come from divine origin

#2 - agreed upon communal morality - an agreed upon set of rules that, while it may change once in a while, is generally practical and convenient for a society of beings who have to live together in a world of limited resources; different cultures can set their own sets of morality (although similar rules about not killing each other, etc. are not surprising); some of these rules can come from instincts, emotions, sentiment, blah, blah, blah; and some of these rules can be foisted upon everyone else by a little social engineering by those in power, etc.

Chesterton and the The Declaration of Independence are both referring to #1. Chesterton also is making the logical deduction that #1 is impossible without the existence of God. Arguing then that, well, athiests, agnostics, and other rationalists believe in #2 is true, but I'd suspect Chesterton would consider #2 not to be real right and wrong after all. When you think about it, some form of morality that is simply based on community agreement, upbringing, environment, social engineering, instincts, etc. can never result in a universal and/or absolute moral law.

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C.S. Lewis wrote:

: The moment you say one lot of morals is better than another, you are in fact measuring them by an ultimate standard.

Um, no. Not necessarily. You are measuring them by a standard, yes, of course (what ELSE would you measure them by?). But you don't have to imagine that the standard in question is "ultimate" in order to measure anything by it. To say that one thing is "better" than another thing is to imply that the one thing is better FOR something else than the other thing is. So this begs the question: for WHAT is the one thing better? There are many ways to answer that question, but none of them have to be "ultimate".

Persiflage wrote:

: #1 - natural law - an absolute and universal moral law that could only come from divine origin

Again, why does "natural law" have to be "absolute and universal", much less "divine" in origin, when nature ITSELF is not particularly "absolute and universal"? And why must "nature" and "divinity" be construed as two separate entities?

: I'd suspect Chesterton would consider #2 not to be real right and wrong after all.

This brings to mind Crossan's old line about how the word "real" belongs to the world of advertising, not scholarship. :)

: When you think about it, some form of morality that is simply based on community agreement, upbringing, environment, social engineering, instincts, etc. can never result in a universal and/or absolute moral law.

Well, yeah, but so what? It's not like morality based on the whims or dictates of a deity are necessarily any better. If you read the Bible in a strictly literal fashion, then you would have to conclude that genocide and the killing of innocents is sometimes good, but it is also sometimes bad, depending on whatever mood God happens to be in at any given point in time. So how "universal and/or absolute" is the moral law that someone like Chesterton would argue for, then?

I say all this, BTW, as one who is sympathetic to the philosphical/theological impulse behind the Chesterton and Lewis quotes above. Some of us really do WANT to believe in "ultimate" meaning. But many people don't care one way or the other, and it strikes me as kind of peculiar to go around telling them, "You're a pretty decent person, but your morality isn't 'REAL' because it isn't 'ULTIMATE' like mine is."

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: The moment you say one lot of morals is better than another, you are in fact measuring them by an ultimate standard.

Um, no. Not necessarily. You are measuring them by a standard, yes, of course (what ELSE would you measure them by?). But you don't have to imagine that the standard in question is "ultimate" in order to measure anything by it. To say that one thing is "better" than another thing is to imply that the one thing is better FOR something else than the other thing is. So this begs the question: for WHAT is the one thing better? There are many ways to answer that question, but none of them have to be "ultimate".

The starting point of Lewis's argument was fighting the Nazis in WWII. The Allies believed, Lewis wrote, that the Germans were in the wrong. Not that Allied morals were better for one set of goals and German morals were better for another. That kind of thinking, Lewis would have said, merely pushes the problem back a step: How do you weigh one set of goals against another? You could say "We are Allies and so we prefer Allied goals to German goals." But that's not the same thing as saying that the Germans are wrong for preferring German goals.

This brings to mind Crossan's old line about how the word "real" belongs to the world of advertising, not scholarship. :)

Which, in turn, underscores the non-identity of the pursuit of scholarship and the pursuit of human fulfillment. A point that Crossan the scholar, in consigning "reality" to the world of advertising, may have missed!

Well, yeah, but so what? It's not like morality based on the whims or dictates of a deity are necessarily any better. If you read the Bible in a strictly literal fashion, then you would have to conclude that genocide and the killing of innocents is sometimes good, but it is also sometimes bad, depending on whatever mood God happens to be in at any given point in time. So how "universal and/or absolute" is the moral law that someone like Chesterton would argue for, then?

Once again we have dispensed with divine command theory and biblical literalism. Chesterton would have said the same thing that Aquinas said, that morality is ultimately a function of the eternal nature of God, and secondarily a function of the created nature of man, and only thirdly a function of particular legislative acts by God or by men.

I say all this, BTW, as one who is sympathetic to the philosphical/theological impulse behind the Chesterton and Lewis quotes above. Some of us really do WANT to believe in "ultimate" meaning. But many people don't care one way or the other, and it strikes me as kind of peculiar to go around telling them, "You're a pretty decent person, but your morality isn't 'REAL' because it isn't 'ULTIMATE' like mine is."

Who does this? If people are decent, then they are decent. Whether they are in a position to provide an adequate explanation of the basis of their decency is another matter. Of course, such an inability can lead to attempts to articulate a basis for morality that become fundamentally indecent, e.g., Peter Singer.

Edited by SDG

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SDG wrote:

: The starting point of Lewis's argument was fighting the Nazis in WWII. The Allies believed, Lewis wrote, that the Germans were in the wrong. Not that Allied morals were better for one set of goals and German morals were better for another.

Well, you can argue the semantics of that all you like, but the basic fact here is that Nazi goals conflicted with Allied goals and vice versa. I mean, when "the Allies" includes everyone from the Americans to the Soviets, it's not like there's one single set of "Allied morals".

: That kind of thinking, Lewis would have said, merely pushes the problem back a step: How do you weigh one set of goals against another?

And once you push the problem back as far as God, you've still got a few more steps to work through, e.g.: How do you weigh one set of God's commands against another?

: Once again we have dispensed with divine command theory and biblical literalism. Chesterton would have said the same thing that Aquinas said, that morality is ultimately a function of the eternal nature of God, and secondarily a function of the created nature of man, and only thirdly a function of particular legislative acts by God or by men.

So when we talk about "moral laws", what are we talking about, if not about these "particular legislative acts"? Is it possible for "the particular legislative acts by God" to conflict with the first two functions? If so, then fine, we've got something to talk about. If not, then who NEEDS those first two functions? (I.e., what difference do they make?)

: Who does this? If people are decent, then they are decent. Whether they are in a position to provide an adequate explanation of the basis of their decency is another matter. Of course, such an inability can lead to attempts to articulate a basis for morality that become fundamentally indecent, e.g., Peter Singer.

Quite so. And when people are unable to explain their morality except by reference to God, then that, too, can lead to attempts to articulate a basis for morality that becomes fundamentally indecent.

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Well, you can argue the semantics of that all you like, but the basic fact here is that Nazi goals conflicted with Allied goals and vice versa. I mean, when "the Allies" includes everyone from the Americans to the Soviets, it's not like there's one single set of "Allied morals".

What has that got to do with the question of whether the claim that the Nazis were "wrong" expressed anything more meaningful than "The Nazis' goals are different from mine/ours"?

: That kind of thinking, Lewis would have said, merely pushes the problem back a step: How do you weigh one set of goals against another?

And once you push the problem back as far as God, you've still got a few more steps to work through, e.g.: How do you weigh one set of God's commands against another?

Who said anything about commands? I thought we were talking about morality.

So when we talk about "moral laws", what are we talking about, if not about these "particular legislative acts"? Is it possible for "the particular legislative acts by God" to conflict with the first two functions? If so, then fine, we've got something to talk about. If not, then who NEEDS those first two functions? (I.e., what difference do they make?)

Without the first two functions, the third has no morally obliging force. It is only because, above all, God is Who He is (eternally and necessarily), and also because we are who we are (contingently and by God's creative action), that morality is what it is, and that (as a consequence) we are obliged to follow either the commands of God or of men.

If God were not God, obviously there would be no moral obligation to follow His laws. Nor would I morally obliged to follow human laws; it would simply be a matter of cost-benefit analysis. The community has its goals; I have mine. If those goals conflict, and if the human community has the power to punish me for violating its rules, then I may prudentially decide to comply. Conversely, if I believe I can evade punishment or if I decide that the crime is worth it, then I may prudentially decide not to comply. It is all a matter of setting goals which are every individual's prerogative to set for himself.

Quite so. And when people are unable to explain their morality except by reference to God, then that, too, can lead to attempts to articulate a basis for morality that becomes fundamentally indecent.

Not so. It may coincide with such deficient explanations, but it does not lead to them in the same way that materialistic attempts to explain morality do.

Edited by SDG

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SDG wrote:

: What has that got to do with the question of whether the claim that the Nazis were "wrong" expressed anything more meaningful than "The Nazis' goals are different from mine/ours"?

Maybe it doesn't; maybe it's just shorthand. Like I say, you can argue the semantics of that all you like, but the fundamental reason any war happens is because one set of goals conflicts with another set of goals.

: Who said anything about commands? I thought we were talking about morality.

We were talking about "moral laws". How is this different from "moral commands"?

: Without the first two functions, the third has no morally obliging force. It is only because, above all, God is Who He is (eternally and necessarily), and also because we are who we are (contingently and by God's creative action), that morality is what it is, and that (as a consequence) we are obliged to follow either the commands of God or of men.

Well, obviously, there's a lot that needs unpacking here. What does "who he is" or "who we are" mean, in practice? And why are contingent beings necessarily "obliged" to follow the commands of other contingent beings or even of an eternal being simply because they are contingent? And why should God's contingent commands be any more obligatory than men's contingent commands? (I mean, especially given how the Old Testament describes God changing his mind and rewarding those who challenge him on certain occasions.)

: If God were not God, obviously there would be no moral obligation to follow His laws. Nor would I morally obliged to follow human laws; it would simply be a matter of cost-benefit analysis.

Certainly, to the extent that morality is taught merely as a matter of "values", it can lead to this sort of atomized relativism. But what about "virtues"? Can those not be taught or discerned without reference to a deity of some sort?

: Not so. It may coincide with such deficient explanations, but it does not lead to them in the same way that materialistic attempts to explain morality do.

Oh please. So the fact that so much violence etc. is committed in God's name is just a "coincidence"!? NOW who's being unpersuasive?

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: What has that got to do with the question of whether the claim that the Nazis were "wrong" expressed anything more meaningful than "The Nazis' goals are different from mine/ours"?

Maybe it doesn't; maybe it's just shorthand.

No. The claim "The Nazis are wrong" may be deluded, a category mistake, or empty propaganda, but the proposition it expresses, whether or not it is true or meaningful, is not a "shorthand" equivalent of "The Nazis' goals are different from mine/ours." If it is false, then it is false, but it's not shorthand for something else. A child who believes in Santa Claus believes erroneously; that doesn't mean that "Santa Claus lives at the North Pole" is "shorthand" for "My parents buy me presents."

Like I say, you can argue the semantics of that all you like, but the fundamental reason any war happens is because one set of goals conflicts with another set of goals.

Which, once again, is crashingly irrelevant to the question whether the Nazis were in the wrong.

We were talking about "moral laws". How is this different from "moral commands"?

Very different indeed. Commands are always speech-acts, but there are different kinds of laws, some speech-acts and some not, and the latter have precedence and determinative force for the former. Before all commands, there is the eternal law, rooted in God's unchanging nature.

: Without the first two functions, the third has no morally obliging force. It is only because, above all, God is Who He is (eternally and necessarily), and also because we are who we are (contingently and by God's creative action), that morality is what it is, and that (as a consequence) we are obliged to follow either the commands of God or of men.

Well, obviously, there's a lot that needs unpacking here. What does "who he is" or "who we are" mean, in practice? And why are contingent beings necessarily "obliged" to follow the commands of other contingent beings or even of an eternal being simply because they are contingent? And why should God's contingent commands be any more obligatory than men's contingent commands? (I mean, especially given how the Old Testament describes God changing his mind and rewarding those who challenge him on certain occasions.)

As you say, there's a lot here that needs unpacking, more than I can spare at this time. To gesture in the direction where I think the answers lie:

In the nature of any living creature, we can discern certain conditions or circumstances that tend to the creature's well-being. These circumstances can be regarded as "goods" in a pre-moral sense. In the case of human beings, such goods include life and health, companionship, work and play, knowledge of truth and appreciation of beauty, peaceable relations with others, and a certain self-integration that we might call inner peace or integrity. No moral argument is needed to appreciate that the desirability of these goods, or the undesirability of the contrary privations which constitute "evils" in this pre-moral sense.

Having said so much, we can formulate the first moral axiom, equivalent to the law of noncontradiction in logic, that the "good" is to be done and sought, and "evil" is to be avoided. In that sense, we can speak of moral principles even in a materialistic world.

However, like the law of non-contradiction, this moral axiom provides no concrete knowledge of the world, because all the judgments about actual Xs and Ys and which goods to pursue and evils to avoid in what ways remain to made. We can't pursue "life and health" per se, we have to choose how we will actually try to earn a living. We can't pursue "peacable relations with others" and "companionship" in the abstract; we have to undertake particular acts aimed at cultivating particular relationships; at times we may have to choose between peace with some and not with others, or vice versa. And the pursuit of goods may conflict in other ways: We may wish to devote our time to gaining knoweldge of truth and appreciation of beauty, but the necessities of earning a living may prevent us from doing so. Or in the pursuit of work and even play we may hazard or harm our physical well-being, e.g., by foregoing sleep or engaging in risky activities.

In this sense, the moral axiom turns out to be a tautology. I am not sure that all human acts are not governed by this axiom, even wicked and nihilistic acts. Those who murder and rape are seeking goods in twisted and destructive ways. Even the suicide wishes to avoid certain evils by his self-destructive act. In a materialistic universe, I don't think we can say that these are "wrong" to do so.

Who is God, and how does His existence and nature change this equation? In a word, God is the fullness of being and perfection toward which all creatures, according to their nature, necessarily tend. To be at all is to that extent to resemble God or to reflect God's nature; and the more complete, integral, or perfect any creature is, the more closely it reflects God's nature and the "happier" it is.

So much is necessarily true of all possible creatures in all possible worlds. Beyond that, God has created rational creatures (the angels and us, if no others) who reflect him in the gift of personhood. He has created us with the capacity and the vocation to know and love Him, and to be known and loved by Him. This is our fulfillment in an ultimate and determining sense. The well-being that we find in relative terms in life and health, companionship, work and play, knowledge of truth and appreciation of beauty, peaceable relations with others and so forth, we find in an ultimate and absolute sense in nearness to God. And, again, this is not simply because he arbitrarily programmed us, computer-like, to need him, but because He is necessarily the perfection of all goods and to desire the good is by definition to desire God.

This provides us with a fundamental frame of reference in the pursuit of well-being: Our first order of business must be to seek God, to pursue right relationship with God. With other relative goods we might make concessions and compromises and weigh one good against another, but not here. To prefer anything to God is per se to harm and diminish ourselves, to choose (in the pre-moral sense) evil over good. And immediately it follows that for us to seek to be in right relationship with God is to seek not only one's own good but the good of all, since the closer we draw to God the closer we necessarily draw to one another. God Who is Love created us in love and for love. Our own good is therefore found in looking beyond our own good, in drawing near to love, in allowing God to give himself to us and in giving ourselves to Him. To do this is necessarily to love those whom God loves.

I don't claim that from these considerations, correct moral judgments necessarily follow. I do think that correct moral judgments are meaningful in this context in a way that I think they aren't otherwise.

Certainly, to the extent that morality is taught merely as a matter of "values", it can lead to this sort of atomized relativism. But what about "virtues"? Can those not be taught or discerned without reference to a deity of some sort?

To an extent, I think so, yes. Certainly conscience works without belief in God; indeed, it may be that the consciences of many unbelievers is more tender and thoughtful than many believers, precisely because they are trying to compensate for their unbelief. But I'm not sure a theoretical account of the virtues is entirely convincing without God.

: Not so. It may coincide with such deficient explanations, but it does not lead to them in the same way that materialistic attempts to explain morality do.

Oh please. So the fact that so much violence etc. is committed in God's name is just a "coincidence"!?

I don't think that's a helpful way of framing things at all. For one thing, we were talking about moral theories, not moral acts. Atrocious moral theories as well as acts are found everywhere, within the world of belief as well as outside. When they occur among believers, they will often take belief-colored forms; when they occur elsewhere, they will take other forms. What I am saying is that to start from an unbelieving position is to be handicapped in a way that starting from a believing position is not. That we are all already handicapped in other ways (e.g., by original sin), and even that unbelievers may have special advantages as well as handicaps (or at least the capacity to compensate for their handicaps), doesn't change that basic fact.

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SDG, I like some of what you say here, and don't know what to make of the rest of it, but if it's okay, I think I may set this thread aside for now. I'm afraid I may be getting too ornery, and besides, my kids have sapped a lot of my energy today. I can't stand my ground with both them and you at the same time. Suffice it to say, though, that my efforts to get them to obey me, period, without all of the rationalizing that you and I put into our discussions of the merits of obeying God (or the lack thereof), sometimes remind me of a reference to Alcibiades and his wife in The Cartoon History of the Universe. (Is that obscure enough for you? Suffice it to say that these are the sorts of things that run through my brain when I'm tired.)

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SDG: what difference would it make to your version of the argument, if instead of using the word 'God', you just said 'Something Else' or 'an outside'?

Because the point seems to me with these arguments (which I sympathise with, but can never fully buy) quite a formal one - that really you just need an outside, not the biblical God. As, moral language, on this account, needs to be grounded in something outside of an undetermined by the sphere that moral language is concerned with.

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SDG: what difference would it make to your version of the argument, if instead of using the word 'God', you just said 'Something Else' or 'an outside'?

Because the point seems to me with these arguments (which I sympathise with, but can never fully buy) quite a formal one - that really you just need an outside, not the biblical God. As, moral language, on this account, needs to be grounded in something outside of an undetermined by the sphere that moral language is concerned with.

Except in saying "God is Love," my argument appeals not so much to "the biblical God" (i.e., God as we know him through special revelation) as to the "God of the philosophers," i.e., God as we know him through reason and nature, including human nature. I think my argument would be quite intelligible to, say, the Pythagoreans or the Neo-Platonists, whose concept of the One or the Good would function quite well in the sort of account of morality sketched above.

"Something Else" isn't quite enough (unless the initial caps are for more than just emphasis); we need Something transcendent and infinite to provide an absolute frame of reference. Being designed by aliens wouldn't get us there, I think. Aliens might be far more advanced than we, but they aren't the source and summit of all perfection.

I don't assume Christian theology, the Trinity, divine revelation, the Incarnation, or anything like that. I just need for materialism not to be true, for the universe, reason and moral principles to be rooted in an Uncaused Cause that is transcendent and infinite. In simplest terms, moral law makes sense to me only on a transcendent worldview, not a materialist worldview. And, ultimately, there are only two transcendent worldviews, pantheism and theism.

Edited by SDG

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I only just noticed how badly written the paragraph you quoted was. Sorry!

So, just to clarify, if you have the time or inclination:

You're making two moves.

The first move has the form "because this, then also this" - if there is moral law, there is a reference to transcendence of some kind, and so, if the moral law is real, then the transcendence appealed to is also real. This gives you the conclusion: no God, no morality. This encourages us to think of the further implications of what we already hold to be true - i.e. that because there clearly is moral law, there is also God; if one denies God then one should also have the balls to embrace the logical conclusion of this, i.e. that there is no moral law. So this part of the argument encourages consistency.

The second move is more negative: "if this then only this" - i.e. if there is morality, it can only be the kind of reality that makes an appeal to a transcendent ground or source. This gives you the conclusion: no moral law, no morality. This is more a kind of phenemenology of morality, it's saying that the phenomena we encounter in moral judgement, norms, exhortation, etc, has an underlying essence. This is a kind of purification of our language and thought, because it's saying that this is what moral langauge actually points to - unconditional law, grounded in a self-referential goodness. It's a claim to know the underlying meaning of a range of disparate phenomena.

I've put them in this order because in the initial appearance 'the moral argument' appears as simply the first move. I.e. because there is morality, there is God, or the opposite; without God there can be no morality. And the second move is then made because one of the objections to the first is that maybe morality does not in fact refer to transcendence. The second moves ensures that the first is possible, but it's far less straightforward, because like I say, it relies on a kind of phenomenology of our language and behaviour - that is, bringing out the essence not by rational moves, but a kind of articulation from within.

Part of my discomfort with this argument is the shift in gear. It starts off in bold argumentative moves that rely on the principle of identity: what we mean by moral law is "God"; therefore it is simply inconsistent to try to have one without the other, like wanting a square circle. But the second relies far more on a sort of appeal to commonly felt intuitions, saying "look, this is what we really mean by all this moral talk -isn't it?".

Edited by stu

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Are there two moves? Here is what I believe. I believe that conscience is one of a number of human faculties by which we apprehend, really though imperfectly, transcendent truth. I believe that everyone who is not cognitively impaired really knows, or is capable of knowing, that he is obliged to follow his conscience, to do what he perceives as right and avoid what he perceives as wrong. What one perceives as right is not necessarily equivalent to what one most wants to do, and awareness of guilt at moral transgressions represents a verdict that is more than regret at an unsatisfied impulse.

Impulses, desires and wishes of various kinds conflict in us all the time, and we can't satisfy them all, so we make decisions to satisfy one at the expense of others. The wise man choosing judiciously feels no regret about this: does not regret, say, a judicious choice to pursue a career in art rather than computer programming, or vice versa; or, on a smaller level, to join friends for a camping trip one weekend and therefore missing an opportunity to go to a concert. We are not similarly free to choose without regret between obeying conscience and committing a wrong that we really want to commit. When we choose wrong, then we have chosen wrongly, and that's all there is to it.

I think that nearly everyone perceives this, and nearly everyone acts and speaks as if they accepted it, even if they explicitly deny it. There are philosophers who reduce all moral judgments to emotional valuations of "Boo!" or "Hurrah!" that express nothing more meaningful than the emotional state of the speaker. Put one of those philosophers in a large, crowded parking lot looking for a parking space. If his sees a space ahead but another car fairly beats him to it, he may say "Nuts," but he probably won't feel animosity toward the driver who beat them out. But if he arrives first at a spot where a car is pulling out, and puts on his blinker, claiming the spot, but then another car coming from the opposite direction slips in behind the departing car, stealing the spot from him, he will have a very different reaction. Both states of affairs are equally inconvenient -- in both cases he still doesn't have a spot -- but in the one case there is moral indignation and in the other there isn't. In the second scenario, it was unfair what the other driver did: the other driver should have yielded to the first driver's claim on the spot. If the second driver defended his actions by saying "You say 'Boo' me getting the spot, I say 'Hurrah!' me getting the spot; your reaction is no more valid than mine, and it's just the same as if I beat you to the spot while you were still driving up," very few of us would regard this as a satisfactory response.

The casus classicus for moral dialogue for most of a century has of course been the Holocaust. The Holocaust was evil. The Nazis were wrong. This is self-evident, I think, but not universally acknowledged. There is also the view of e.g. Nietzche, who wrote, "If I am capable of killing you or an entire race, particularly if I can get away with it, then no one can say that I have done a wrong. It would be absurd to say so." Of course the Nazis didn't get away with it inasmuch as they lost the war. But they did succeed in killing millions of Jews, and at least some of them "got away" with it in the sense that they evaded Allied justice and lived out their days in freedom.

Were their actions wrong? Nearly everyone would say so; but some, like Nietzsche, consider this absurd. Who is right? Is there even a meaningful dispute? As I see it, if materialism is true, then either Nietzsche is right or the whole dispute is meaningless and we are all just making noise.

Materialism seems to me to reduce everything to behavior, to phenomenology. Creatures behave the way they behave, and outcomes result. Guided by various impulses and faculties, creatures pursue different goals in different ways, some with more success, some with less. The only meaningful verdict on behaviors that I can see in this context is success or failure. Certain behaviors tend to be unhelpful, either to the individual or to the group, and over time tend toward more negative outcomes; other behaviors are useful either to the individual or the group, and over time tend toward rewards. Of course some behaviors reward some and harm others, and whether these behaviors are rewarded or not can depend on many factors.

Conscience, on this accounting, would seem to be a set of affinities and inhibitions conditioned by biological and social evolution, tending to incline individuals to behaviors that are or are perceived to be generally healthy either for the individual or for the group, even at the expense of the individual. Often, then, the voice of conscience is the voice of self-interest in one form or another. But not always, no more than any other set of affinities or inhibitions. Just as we make prudential decisions sometimes to heed and sometimes to disregard other impulses and affinities, there seems to be no material reason why we should not consider ourselves free to do the same with conscience.

Through empathy I am able to put myself in the other person's place. It's a useful skill since mankind's capacity for social action has led to achievements far beyond the capacity of individuals acting alone. In the arena of competition evolution has rewarded this capacity for empathy by benefiting societies that produce it over societies that don't.

But the capacity for selfishness, judiciously applied, can also be a useful skill and equally rewarded in the arena of competition. Through selfishness, unprincipled individuals often advance beyond their betters, provide for their families, seduce the partners of others, debilitate or kill their enemies, avoid responsibilities and burdens imposed on others, reap where they have not sown, and generally enjoy benefits that often elude those inhibited by empathy.

Best of all, the unprincipled individual can enjoy all the benefits of living in an empathic society while still enjoying the rewards of being himself free to act selfishly -- not with impunity of course, since he wishes to punishment, but when and where he can. The unprincipled individual is not without empathy, and certainly approves of it in others, since it's very convenient for him that other people should be guided by it. When it's not to his disadvantage, he may happily indulge his capacity for empathy and reap all the emotional benefits of doing so. When the chips are down, though, he takes what he can get.

Who's to say he doesn't have the best of both worlds?

I am. And so is every morally sane individual. To the unprincipled man, we are all chumps. But he is wrong. I know it, and you know it.

But what is it that we know?

We know that success or failure is not the only meaningful verdict. We know that the voice of conscience speaks with authority, and every man is bound to obey it. Even the unprincipled man probably recognizes this on some level, and you wouldn't believe the pretzel-like contortions he makes of the narrative of his life in order to tell himself that he's the good guy and even the victim of other people's selfishness.

We know that the Holocaust was wrong, and it doesn't matter what Nietzsche thought. We recognize, deep down, that the concentration camp prisoner who walks into the gas ovens holding his head high, with the words of the Shema or the Our Father on his lips, is a success, while the quisling who collaborates with the Nazis, rats out his fellow prisoners, and ultimately survives to have a family is a failure. We would all hope to be the first man, not the second. We would hope our children would be the first man, not the second.

These are judgments that finally make no sense that I can see in a materialistic universe. If materialism is true, then survival and reproduction is the only meaningful vindication, and death can only be regarded as the ultimate defeat. No other considerations outweigh that. And even that matters only in the short run, since in the long run the human race is doomed to extinction anyway, regardless how we live our lives here and now. That's not to pooh-pooh the short run; we have to live in it, even if it's all we have. But if the short run is all that matters, I honestly can't see how I would get worked up about considerations much weightier than: How can I live as comfortably and happily as possible for the foreseeable future? Am I set for food and water, clothing and shelter, security and medical attention, sex, company, and entertainment? What do I need to do to keep my body reasonably healthy? Beyond that, if I happen to have kids, I would prefer to see them too set for all these things, though I don't think I would go crazy in that regard. That's about it, I think.

But this is in fact a subhuman worldview. Human nature demands to be held to a higher standard than this. Our own aspirations don't make sense in that universe. We are more than this, and we know it. And in this inner "more" is an awareness of an outer "more." We have a capacity for and a drive toward transcendence. In our morality, in our religiosity and mysticism, in our aesthetic and cognitive faculties, we perceive and are drawn toward something above and beyond, something absolute. Call it ultimate reality, divinity, the ground of being, the unmoved mover, the source, the one, heaven, whatever -- there is Something there, and by our actions we can hope to be more or less rightly ordered toward this reality, and that is the verdict that matters.

Whew. That was way more energy than I should have spent this afternoon. Hope it's helpful.

Edited by SDG

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I'll respond to this epic tomorrow at some point, after some mulling and pondering, although I doubt I'll match the eloquence.

Thanks,

-Stu

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(I felt a real kinship to Dan Back a couple years ago when he announced why he was stepping away from the boards)

So did I. My faith, what I understand by "faith," has undergone serious shaking. Converting to Catholicism was trivial in comparison. I continue to cling to God, and one reason is that I am convinced that conscience speaks with divine authority. If there is no God, then the authority of conscience is an illusion, and moral impulses and considerations are just like any other impulses or considerations, no more to be privileged than any other.

As do I...but it seems to lead me away from being able to take Church and the Bible all that seriously...

Clinging to God, trying to take a step back and do as Jesus suggested... love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.

I noted elsewhere this weekend that I find it funny that i have heard many Christians argue that one of the Pharisee's problems was that they added rule upon rule to the law, parsing it, adding even more rules, trying to fine tune everything. They were making it impossible. But the rub is, the Christian Church seems to have started doing the same thing from almost day one. Jesus words weren't enough. We needed more. We needed specifics. And people quickly provided them, suggesting guidance from God to expressly say who was in the club, who was out, what lines could be crossed, what lines could not, etc. And for 2,000 years it has gone on. Of course, many Christians I have known see it as a problem OTHER DENOMINATIONS have, not their own.

But anyways...I find myself wanting to believe, yet being unable to trust or find joy or release in God as the Church and the Bible represent God.

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What a thread!

I'm not entirely sure how you mean this, but it suggests to me two ideas with which (following Chesterton) I would take exception. First, I would argue that in the absence of religious considerations, there are no moral laws, there are only only irrationally conditioned impulses and self-interest ("If God does not exist, all things are permissible"). Second, I would argue against reducing a religious interpretation of morality to divine command theory ("God says...").

I agree that both of these things are true, though the former often needs to be qualified in Christian contexts. The fact is that most world religions go about the ethical world-building process exactly the same way that Christianity does, such that all religions in some sense think that apart from their cosmology, ethics make no sense. So the Christian appeal to "religion" as the basis of morality is often very naive. (I am not saying your argument is marked by this, SDG. Quite the opposite. Rather, I just wanted to toss that in the mix.) A corollary to this is that all religions (or non-religious communities) also use various means to justify more problematic aspects of their history or practice, such as the caste system, jihad, the crusades, or abortion.

This issue of justification is where I get hung up. Rather than saying that all people have an innate sense of morality (which I think is A. True and B. Vintage Apostle Paul), I think it is easier for people to swallow this: All people feel compelled to justify their behavior by an appeal to ethics. It is this propensity towards self-justification that lies at the center of much of Jesus' teaching, which comes out very clearly in his stunning statement: No one is good but God.

It just seems to me that the New Testament assumes that people have an innate sense of right and wrong. As SDG says, we are all compelled to explore intellectual paths that lead to a personal deity. But what crops up frequently in NT biblical theology is what we do with this inborn faculty. How do we use it? How does it lead us astray? How do we form proper justifications for behavior?

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