MandM header image 2

With God Anything can be Permitted: Another Bad Argument against Theistic Morality

April 28th, 2009 by Matt

Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov’s famously contended that if God does not exist then anything is permissible. Ken over at Open Parachute disagrees and goes one step further and argues that the shoe is on the other foot. Ken maintains that theistic accounts of obligation lead to an “extreme form of moral relativism” and in fact, Dostoevsky’s contention should be rephrased as “with God anything can be permitted.” Ken claims,

But when secular morality is abandoned, and religious appeals to what God wants, or what God ordains, this opens the gates wide to the worst sort of moral relativism. It enables any despot to sanction any form of inhumanity by claiming that their god supports it.

“if Ken’s argument is sound then he has offered, not just an argument against theism, but an argument against the existence of morality itself.”Now regular readers of this blog will know that I have written several defences of theistic accounts of moral obligation. I have also argued that moral relativism is a mistaken theory of ethics. Hence, if what Ken says is true then my own position is incoherent. I defend a thesis and at the same time I critique and reject a position that is a logical implication of that thesis or at least follows from the thesis when it is conjoined with some uncontroversial facts.

For this reason, it is worth asking whether Ken’s claim is true, or at best, whether the arguments he gives for this claim are sound. I contend that they are not. Ken’s main argument for his thesis is found in the following quote,

This seems crazy to most people but is not at all unusual. Consider the civil rights struggles in the USA. Christian beliefs were used to justify both segregation and the opposition to it. The same in South Africa. Most members of the Dutch reform Church thought apartheid was sanctified by God, whereas many anti-apartheid activists opposed apartheid on religious grounds. Consider slavery. Consider just about any struggle over human rights in human history and we can see examples of a god being used to justify both opposition to, and support of, human rights.

This suggests to me that religion does allow for an extreme form of moral relativism. Truly anything can be justified by claiming support from your god.

I think Ken’s argument is flawed. Let me offer two lines of response to demonstrate why.

First, if Ken’s argument is sound then he has offered, not just an argument against theism, but an argument against the existence of morality itself. Consider the structure of his argument; he notes that one group of theists oppose P and claim, as the basis for their opposition, that P has the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Ken then notes that another group of theists oppose not-P and claim, as the basis for their opposition, that not-P has the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Ken infers from these examples that belief in God entails “an extreme form of moral relativism” and that it follows from this that “with God anything can be permitted.”

The problem is that an exactly analogous line of argument applies to the existence of right and wrong per se whether it has a theistic grounding or not. Consider any paradigmatic moral debate on an issue. Whether it is capital punishment, affirmative action, war or whatever, one group of believers in the existence of right and wrong will oppose P and claim, as the basis for their opposition, that P has the property of being wrong. Another group who also believe in right and wrong will oppose not-P and claim, as the basis for their opposition, that not-P has the property of being wrong. Hence, if Ken’s argument is valid then it must be the case that the existence of right and wrong entails “extreme moral relativism,” and, that if right and wrong exist then anything can be permitted.

So we have, then, two arguments, Ken’s own argument that God’s existence entails extreme moral relativism and an analogous argument that the existence of right and wrong entails extreme moral relativism. Both have true premises. Ken’s premise is that some believers in God disagree over whether to support a given action. The analogous argument has as its premise the contention that people who believe in the existence of right and wrong sometimes disagree over whether to support a given action.

Given this, it follows that either both arguments are sound or neither one of them is. Ken must either embrace extreme moral relativism and the kind of nihilistic tendencies he criticises “religion” for having or he must retract his argument.

The second line response I will make to Ken’s argument is to note that it clearly is not a valid argument at all. In fact, it conceals a subtle fallacy. Ken notes that,

[1] Different religious believers appeal to God to justify mutually incompatible practises.

From this he infers that,

[2] Anything can be justified by appealing to God.

The problem here is that [1] is ambiguous. When we say that a person appeals to a belief to justify a conclusion, we can mean

[1a] He or she actually does show that the position is actually justified by appealing to this belief;

or we can mean,

[1b] That he or she attempts to show that the position is justified by appealing to this belief.

Which, then, does Ken mean?

Ken could mean [1a]. If he does mean this his argument is unsound. This is because the examples he shows do not substantiate this premise, they do not support the claim that theists have actually justified mutually incompatible positions with appeals to God.

Noting that theists have disagreed over what policy is in accord with the will of God does not show that all parties to the dispute have actually justified their claim that these policies are in fact in accord with God’s will. Merely noting the existence of an argument does not demonstrate that the argument is sound.

Perhaps then Ken means [1b], he is simply noting that different theists have attempted to justify their beliefs by appealing to God. This claim certainly is supported by the evidence he cites; however, the problem is that the conclusion Ken draws does not follow.

The fact that people have attempted to offer justifications for mutually inconsistent positions does not entail that all these positions can in fact be justified. It only tells us that people have attempted to justify mutually incompatible positions by appealing to God.

I grant that people can use theological premises in an attempt to justify different and inconsistent positions but this is a fairly innocuous claim. Take any premise you like, secular or theological, it is true that a person could to appeal to this premise in an attempt to justify something. Such a person’s argument may be stupid, unsound or unsuccessful but that does not mean that it is impossible for that person to try to mount it. I am sure Ken would agree that people offer stupid arguments for things all the time.

Consider Darwinian Evolution. People can and have appealed to this theory to justify Marxism, Nazism, racism, colonialism, atheism, scepticism, ethical nihilism, infanticide and a whole host of other positions, many of which are mutually incompatible. Of course, the fact people have tried to use Darwinism for this purpose does not, in and of itself, entail that Darwinism actually justifies any of these theories. It only tells us that some people appealed to it to try to show this.

Ken, I am sure, would object to being told that his beliefs commit him to social Darwinist views of race relations purely because someone once appealed to Darwinism in the past to justify such claims. Similarly, he would object if I suggested that the mere existence of these arguments by others in the past commits him to extreme relativism and the view that any action, including rape and torturing of little children, could be justified.

Ken would rightly point out that the issue is not whether Darwinian arguments have been offered for all sorts of crazy positions; rather, it is whether these arguments are correct. Here I would simply note that what is good for the goose is equally good for the gander.

RELATED POSTS:
Divine Commands and Intuitions: A Response to Ken Perrott
See labels:
Divine Command Theory
Euthyphro

Tags:   · · · · 30 Comments

Leave a Comment


30 responses so far ↓

  • Of course, Ken himself believes in moral relativism – having argued consistently that societies set standards according to consensus (which really turns out to be “majority rules”) so he’s not really in any position to judge those who attempt to set objective standards and fail.

    Recent blog post: What Next

  • Good post. Clear thinking is so important. It would reduce the number of pointless arguments one has to step through to get to the essence of the issue.

    Recent blog post: Traffic Light Disease

  • Thanks, Matt. The argument you are critiquing brought to mind a quotation from Butler’s Analogy of Religion, Part 2, ch. 2:

    [T]hough objections against the evidence of Christianity are most seriously to be considered, yet objections against Christianity itself are, in great measure, frivolous; almost all objections against it, excepting those which are alleged against the particular proofs of its coming from God. I express myself with caution, lest I should be mistaken to vilify reason; which is, indeed, the only faculty we have wherewith to judge concerning anything, even revelation itself, or be misunderstood to assert, that a supposed revelation cannot be proved false from internal characters. For it may contain clear immoralities, or contradictions, and either of these would prove it false. Nor will I take upon me to affirm that nothing else can possibly render any supposed revelation incredible. Yet still the observation above is, I think, true beyond doubt, that objections against Christianity, as distinguished from objections against its evidence, are frivolous.

  • Darwinian evolution is an account of how things are or came to be. The biological theory of evolution cannot be used to justify any moral theory without committing a ‘naturalistic fallacy’. We can’t infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

    It’s different with religion. If good is what God tells us to do then we ought to do what God tells us to do. The Christian God reportedly both commanded certain people to kill other people and also commanded people not to kill other people. So, prima facie ‘anything goes’ as far as God and killing people is concerned.

    Of course if we go down the other horn of Euthyphro, the way is open to us to try and find out what we ought to do and what good is. So we do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do and we do what God wills because God is good and wants us to do the right thing. But first we need to figure out for ourselves what’s good; until we do so we can’t call any person good, whether human or supernatural.

  • Here is a related piece for Ken…

    From http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/materialist-concede-that-holocaust-was-permitted-if-materialism-is-true/

    Materialist Concede that Holocaust was Permitted if Materialism is True

    Barry Arrington

    In my “Bleak Conclusions” post I quoted kairosfocus who was in turn quoting Hawthorne for the following:

    Assume:
    (1) That atheistic naturalism is true.
    (2) One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.”

    If these two things are true, nothing exists from which we can infer any moral principle. If moral principles cannot be inferred, nothing is prohibited by any moral principle and therefore all things are permitted. This leads to the conclusion that the Holocaust was permitted.

    I asked our materialist friends to explain to me how, if their premises are true, they can avoid the conclusion that the Holocaust was permitted.

    The nearly 300 comments boil down to indignation mixed with the childhood rejoinder – “Oh yeah, same to ya.”

    No one, not a single person, has attempted to rebut the conclusion. Therefore, we must conclude that there is no rebuttal. The materialists are silent; they cannot speak. They must concede that their premises lead to the conclusion that the Holocaust was not prohibited by any moral principle of which we can be certain. How very sad.

  • I will just repeat here comments I made on my original blog post (With God, anything can be permitted) in response to a comment by ZenTiger there:

    Unfortunately Matt rather wasted his time with his post because he apparently did not give the appropriate care to reading my original article. Consequently he has resorted to irrelevant strawmannery and word play.

    Matt actually conceded my point with: “I grant that people can use theological premises in an attempt to justify different and inconsistent positions . . .” However, his subsequent comment: “this is a fairly innocuous claim,” is heartless. Tell that to the 3000 who died in the New York World Trade Centre attack, to the many women whose rights and lives are violated under Sharia law and under theocratic regimes, to those massacred in the Jonestown tragedy, to the many victims of indiscriminate bombings of mosques and public places in India, Pakistan, Iraq, etc., etc.,, etc. I could, unfortunately, go on.

    And yes, as Matt says this is not restricted to religious dogma – the very point I made in the highlighted disclaimer at the end of my article (didn’t Matt read that far?). It’s a common problem with extreme ideologies. So was my point again “innocuous”? Again, tell that to all the victims of ideologically “justified” persecution by Mao ZeDong, Stalin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Franco, etc., etc. Unfortunately again, I could go on.

    Matt has disingenuously played with the meaning of the word “justify” to distort my article. Similarly, he is just wrong (to put it mildly) in his claim that I say, or argue that, “Belief in a god entails an extreme form of moral relativism” and “God’s existence entails extreme moral relativism.” I say, or indeed believe, nothing of the sort!!

    Most of us (theists and non-theists alike) come to our moral/ethical positions as a result of our moral intuitions and using moral logic. That is not a relativist position.However, when a group or individual “justifies” a position by saying that it is what their god wants or commands (or what their Great leader or their ideology demands) they do this to override our normal moral intuitions and logic. Because anything can be “justified” in this situation it is an extreme form of moral relativism.Recent blog post: Clamping down on science communication

  • This makes me think of the Miss California and the statements she made about gay marriage. Her defence was that it was “biblically correct”. How is that not being relativistic? After all, there is no reasoning required other than appeal to authority. The fact is religious conservatives appeal to the bible to justify their stance against gay marriage, and religious liberals in contrast say the bible says nothing about gay marriage and infer from positive statements about marriage to justify their stance. Maybe neither stance goes to justify anything, but they have still be used to make the solid claim gay marriage is right (or wrong as the case may be) and stating this is just an ‘attempt’ ignores this reality. The same goes for slavery and the other examples that have been mentioned.

    In contrast, coming from a secular approach I’d have to actually think about it before coming to a conclusion about whether the proposition is right or wrong and use some kind of process of verification. Instead of using moral relativism, I’d instead have to use moral universalism and judge this using determinable concepts like human rights or that if something that is morally right is right for everyone, or if morally wrong it’s wrong for everyone. It also makes it very difficult, if not impossible to take a stance that everything and anything goes, because if using the starting point that equally the same moral principles apply to me, how could I then justify the holocaust? I couldn’t condemn people to be sent to a death chamber on the basis of faith or race that is other than mine without first considering whether it is morally right for *me* to be condemned to the same fate for the same reasons.

  • Ken, actually nothing in your response actually addresses my argument.

    1 you say I am “playing with words” and am “disengenious” I am sorry but attacking my integrity and using pejorative terms to describe my position are not arguments, they are however straight forward fallacies.

    2. You deny that the claim that: different people can appeal to a theological claim to attempt to justify almost anything, is innocuous citing cases where much harm and suffering has been done by such arguments, this however does not actually refute my point. The fact that people have harmed others by attempting to argue for unjust policies on theological grounds shows that these particular arguments are not innocuous. It does not show that my claim that its possible for people to propose such arguments is not innocuous. There is a world of difference between making a claim and acknowledging that its possible for others to make a claim.

    3. I went on to argue for my conclusion. I said it was innocuous because any claim is such that people can try and use it to justify contradictory positions. You is to state “this [problem] is not restricted to religious dogma –“ and note “It’s a common problem with extreme ideologies” That is not what I said however, I said that any belief is such that it can be used arguments for mutually incompatible positions.

    I gave two examples, one was the belief that right and wrong exists, some people you believe in the existence of right actions argue that affirmative action is correct; others who believe in the existence of right actions argue they are not. Moreover almost every atrocity ever committed was defended on the grounds it was right. I also noted that evolution has been used in premises of arguments for all sorts of incompatible positions. Clearly belief in right and wrong, and belief in evolutionary theory are not extremist positions.

    Perhaps you can address my point. Do you deny that people can appeal to “right and wrong” or “evolution” in attempted justifications of different positions? Yes or No.

    3. You state that you believe that “come to our moral/ethical positions as a result of our moral intuitions and using moral logic” You note also that rejecting this means “anything can be justified” I agree, what I do not agree with is your unargued for contention (i.e. bare assertion) that people who ground their moral duties in divine commands must reject moral intuition or logic. Simply asserting another persons position is illogical as a premise is hardly a cogent argument for the claim their position is irrational. It’s actually circular.

    I maintain that you have not provided any reason for suggesting that right and wrong cannot be grounded in divine commands.

    Recent blog post: Don’t Forget!

  • Matt – I still find your comment confused. However, although I am repeating myself let's clear this particular point up: You say:

    <blockquote>“You state that you believe that “come to our moral/ethical positions as a result of our moral intuitions and using moral logic” You note also that rejecting this means “anything can be justified” I agree,”</blockquote>

    Well good. But you then go on to say:

    <blockquote>“what I do not agree with is your unargued for contention (i.e. bare assertion) that people who ground their moral duties in divine commands must reject moral intuition or logic.”</blockquote>

    That was un-argued, or un-asserted by me because it’s certainly not my position. I made that clear in my previous comment. I know plenty of theists who have no problem accommodating their religious beliefs with the moral intuitions and logic common to us all. And I know communists, socialists, capitalists, free-marketeers, agnostics, atheists, etc., etc., who also do the same with their beliefs. It’s part of being a reasonable human.

    But the fact remains that once people allow extreme ideology, the authority of a Great Leader, or the authority of a god (as passed on to them by religious leaders) to override their moral intuitions and moral logic – then everything can be permitted. And surely history shows that.

    Unfortunately your talk of “grounding moral duties in divine commands” is the very thing that is co-opted by demagogues (after all they are the ones telling you what these moral commands are) to bury (or manipulate) our moral intuitions and logic.And again, history surely shows that.

    Recent blog post: Clamping down on science communication

  • Ken,

    Turning to the particular point in question I stated that “ I do not agree with is your unargued for contention (i.e. bare assertion) that people who ground their moral duties in divine commands must reject moral intuition or logic.”In your most recent post you state first that that was un-argued, or un-asserted by me because it’s certainly not my position this suggests you do not claim that grounding moral duties in divine commands involves overriding moral logic or failing to accommodate moral intuitions.

    The problem is that in the comment prior to you said explicitly when a group or individual “justifies” a position by saying that it is what their god wants or commands (or what their Great leader or their ideology demands) they do this to override our normal moral intuitions and logic.

    The last sentence here states that people who appeal to divine commands to justify a position do this to override our normal moral intuitions and logic

    Moreover, your protestations to the contrary you state explicitly in your original post
    But when secular morality is abandoned, and religious appeals to what God wants, or what God ordains, this opens the gates wide to the worst sort of moral relativism. It enables any despot to sanction any form of inhumanity by claiming that their god supports it. When this happens we are justified in saying “With a God, anything can be permitted

    Here you assert that if a person does not follow secular morality, and appeals to what God commands (you use the words want or ordain) they put forward a position that leads to relativism. A position you have stated is contrary to moral logic and intuitionism

    Recent blog post: MandM on Opposing Views in Religion and Society

  • 1. You note that Darwinian Theory cannot be used to “justify any moral theory without committing a ‘naturalistic fallacy” I agree. In and of itself neo Darwinian evolution justifies nothing, one would need further premises to get to any substantive moral conclusions from it. That however is not contrary to what I said, my point in the post was that people have attempted to justify mutually incompatible positions, not that they actually have done so.

    I think theological ethics are analogous here, in and of itself, a divine command theory of ethics justifies nothing, one would need further premises (specifying what God has commanded) to get any moral conclusions. All Ken’s examples show is that people have attempted to justify mutually incompatible positions with an appeal to a theistic based ethics not that they actually have done so. To do the latter he would need to show that their arguments were actually sound, he had not done this.

    2. You claim that It’s different with religion. If good is what God tells us to do then we ought to do what God tells us to do. The Christian God reportedly both commanded certain people to kill other people and also commanded people not to kill other people. So, prima facie ‘anything goes’ as far as God and killing people is concerned. . Now I agree that if God commanded people to never kill and also commanded them to kill, then, that would entail any thing is permissible. From a contradiction one can validly deduce anything. I simply disagree that God has commanded this. My view is closer to that of Augustine, as I understand it, God issued a general prohibition to not kill human beings, but also issued commands permitting killing in certain limited more specific circumstances. That seems to me fairly plausible, the claim that in general (prima facie) it’s wrong to kill people but in certain limited circumstances it’s necessary and justified almost all secular ethic systems would assert similar conclusions.

    3. I have addressed the Euthyphro dilemma repeatedly on this blog. Let me add this brief comment, you talk about the other horn leaving it open to us to try and find out what we ought to do and what good is this is based on a conflation between epistemology and ontology. Divine command theories do not claim that our knowledge of right and wrong depends on our belief in divine commands. It claims that deontological properties ( such as right and wrong) depend on divine commands for their existence. These are very different claims, the fact that something (like say water) depends on something else (like H20) for its existence does not mean one needs to believe in the existence of H20 in order to know that water exists.

    This point has been repeatedly made and clarified by defenders of theistic ethics. So it’s frustrating that critics of such ethics seem to repeatedly fail to make the distinction, there comes a point where you have to wonder if they have actually read anything about the position they attack.

    Recent blog post: MandM on Opposing Views in Religion and Society

  • Actually, I don’t think that religious liberals believe in Gay marriage on the basis of biblical authority. Religious liberals typically do not accept that the bible is authoritative, and the argument you attribute to them is a clear fallacious inference from silence.

    But putting that to ones side, even if we grant your comments, your argument doesn’t follow. You claim that some people appeal to a tradition to justify one stance and others appeal to the same tradition to justify the other. You go on to admit that neither may actually “justify anything” hence they at best can be called attempted or purported justifications. What I don’t see is how this observation entails that relativism is true.

    All it tells us is that some people within the same tradition sometimes disagree over what is the right action in a particular situation. But the fact that people disagree over an answer does not mean any answer is correct. Scientists disagree on certain issues all the time, does this mean “any scientific theory” is justified. Believers in human rights frequently disagree over what actions violate human rights, yet you would not deduce from this that human rights entails relativism. So your argument simply does not follow.

    As to your own approach I agree it does not entail relativism, but as far as I can tell there is nothing in your approach which a theistic approach to morality denies. Divine command theorists can Theists can and do believe that people have rights (they simply ground rights in divine commands). Similarly a theist can believe that “if something that is morally right is right for everyone, or if morally wrong it’s wrong for everyone.” all they need to do is believe that God has issued certain commands to everyone, which they typically do. Hence if the secularist can avoid relativism, despite the fact that secularists disagree on issues, because his moral theory has these features so can a theistic moral theory because it has the same features.

    So, as far as I can tell, nothing in your comments provides any reasons for thinking that a secular approach is superior to a theistic one.

    Recent blog post: MandM on Opposing Views in Religion and Society

  • You go on to admit that neither may actually “justify anything” hence they at best can be called attempted or purported justifications. What I don’t see is how this observation entails that relativism is true.”

    The rest of my sentence says:

    “…..but they have still been used to make the solid claim gay marriage is right (or wrong as the case may be) and stating this is just an ‘attempt’ ignores this reality.” (Note: I’ve fixed a typo).

    That’s the Elephant in the room that you are ignoring because you are ignoring that they are used to make a solid (or positive claim) that a position is justified. Miss California didn’t even make an attempt to justify or verify her position when resorting to her argument that her stance was “biblically correct”. I can’t see how a theist can believe that “if something that is morally right is right for everyone, or if morally wrong it’s wrong for everyone.” and at the same time rely on God’s command because it would over-ride the imperative to rely on God’s command which theistic morals demand using. One position demands verification against the principle of right or wrong applying to all, the other demands that the stance is relative to the authority of God.

    If all that is required is the belief that God has issued certain commands that would be the equivalent of believing in what you want to believe in, or that anything goes provided you can find some way of making it relative to that belief that it’s God’s command.

    People do disagree, but scientists and even those who believe in human rights while they might argue about what a fact or a principle *means* they don’t argue about what the facts or principle *is*. There is a difference, they are using something they both agree on, a shared understand of an objective set of facts or a shared adherence to a basic principle as a base (I’d call that more of a debate than disagreement myself). This creates a process of verification, in particular for scientific theories they must be functional and adequately explain the data. If something contradicts it, it’s back to the drawing board. It’s not that any answer is correct or any theory is justified, but that incorrect answers are discarded if and when they cannot be verified.

  • I think it’s best if anyone is really interested in “what I said” or what my position is for them to read my original post With God, anything can be permitted? rather than relying on quotes or reinterpretations out of context. It seems silly to get into debating what I “really mean” or assert several quotes removed when one can “watch my mouth”, as it were.

    I think a key issue, one which should really be spelt out in detail, is the concept of “grounding moral duties in divine commands”.What does this mean? After all, I keep hearing of people who have committed murder as a result of “divine commands” and society usually locks them up.

    So what do you mean by “divine commands”? How do you get them? Do you hear voices? And if such a command tells you commit an act which conflicts with your moral intuitions and logic – which one do you follow?

    Recent blog post: Why is science important?

  • Matt did link to your article in the second line of his post and our stats show many visits to your site from that link, so I doubt many people are relying completely on Matt’s copy and paste of your original words.

    As for what Matt means by divine commands and your related questions, particularly your statement that it needs to be spelt out in more detail, I suggest you see the 20 blog posts that come up under our Divine Command Theory label and the 6 that come up under the Euthyphro labels in our side bar. Also keep an eye out for Matt’s article on the subject in the upcoming issues of Colloquiem: The Australasian Theological Review and feel free to attend the upcoming Thinking Matters Auckland seminar where Matt will be speaking on “In Defence of Divine Commands” and will be available to answer questions in person.(see the recent blog post for details in the link below)

    Recent blog post: Thinking Matters Winter Series: God, Morality and Society

  • Jaywalk, Your reference to a “solid (or positive claim)” is not an elephant in the room at all. Your argument does not follow the fact that a person appeals to a source to make a positive claim does not entail that the source actually provides support for that claim, it only shows that someone thinks that it does.

    To take your example of human rights. Around the world today people appeal to a human rights charters to make positive claims to certain things. On many occasions another person will appeal to the same source to argue that the first persons positive claim is bogus. Do you contend that that “human rights” imply relativism.

    I can’t see how a theist can believe that “if something that is morally right is right for everyone, or if morally wrong it’s wrong for everyone.” and at the same time rely on God’s command because it would over-ride the imperative to rely on God’s command which theistic morals demand using. One position demands verification against the principle of right or wrong applying to all, the other demands that the stance is relative to the authority of God. I am sorry but there is no contradiction here, the claim that (a) right and wrong are constituted by divine commands and (b) whats right for one person is right for all. Do not contradict each other and cannot override each other (to override they would have to come into conflict which they don’t). Please show me how (b) entails the negation of (a) by any rule of inference in logic?

    People do disagree, but scientists and even those who believe in human rights while they might argue about what a fact or a principle *means* they don’t argue about what the facts or principle *is*. There is a difference, they are using something they both agree on, a shared understand of an objective set of facts or a shared adherence to a basic principle as a baseThis is false, take your example of “people who believe in human rights” they frequently do not agree on the basic principles. There is widespread disagreement over what rights exist: some people claim there are non discrimination rights others claim there are not. Some claim there is a right to welfare others do not. Some believe there is a right to assisted suicide others do not. Some claim animals have rights others do not and so on.

    Nor do all these people agree on the facts there is pervasive disagreement over factual issues such as does capital punishment deter? is a fetus a human being? What are the effects of free market economics on society, etc. One need only examine a standard secular ethics text book to see this. Moreover amongst secular ethicists as a whole there is not a “shared base”. Ulititarians propose one basic principle, Kantians another, virtue ethics another and so on. The secular ethical literature is full of debates over these very issues. Anyone remotely familiar with contemporary philosophical ethics knows this.

    Ironically, theological ethics need not lack any of the characteristics you cite. People who accept divine command meta-ethics and scriptural authority have a common base and principle. They simply disagree over interpreting scripture i.e they disagree over what the principles mean. Moreover from this base they can argue for there conclusions from facts, if there conclusions contradict things known to be true they are discarded etc So it’s more debate than disagreement.

    Of course if you base your understand of theological meta-ethics on the five second sound bite made by Miss California at a beauty contest you may not be aware of this. But I suggest the problem here is not theological meta-ethics.

    Recent blog post: Dr Glenn Peoples on Religion in the Public Square

  • Ken, why is Matt’s point not glaringly obvious to you?

    You have simply done the following:

    1) Observe that in history, people have claimed divine authority for their deeds and moral beliefs.
    2) Observe that those people have held moral beliefs and done deeds that are at odds with the deeds and beliefs of others who claim divine sanction for their beliefs and deeds.
    3) You therefore conclude that if divine authority really IS the basis of morality, anything is permissible, since conflicting moral beliefs are equally justified.

    Ken, this is not just an invalid inference, but it is absolutely obviously so. Imagine if I said this:

    1) In history, some people have depended on the scientific method and on mathematics to provide reliable beliefs.
    2) Those people have arrived at conclusions that are at odds with the conclusions of other people who use the scientific method and mathematics.
    3) Therefore, if we trust science and maths, anything goes!

    You wouldn’t accept such a silly argument, would you? Your (justifiable) objection would be something like this: The mere fact that a person claims that their conclusion is scientifically defensible does not mean that is IS scientifically defensible.

    The point of the moral argument for theism, Ken, is not that the basis of morality is what some religious person or group believes. The point is that only if there is a god can there be moral facts. You’re welcome to disagree with it, but hopelessly garbling the theist’s position for the sake of a bit of rhetorical colour (in this case accusing people of holding to a view that makes “anything permissible”) is not going to cut it.

    Recent blog post: Join me on Facebook!

  • Madeleine – that reply is just not good enough. Matt has used the term “Divine Command” in his criticism of my post. It does raise all sorts of pictures which may or may not be correct (such as the schizophrenic who claims his god commanded him to murder someone). These are central to the question of whether or not a god can be used to justify moral decisions which contradict moral logic. (clearly they can in the case of this schizophrenic). Hence it is central to the question of moral relativity.

    Surely Matt is capable of giving a brief description of what he means by the term – or am I justified in interpreting his silence to mean that he does place his “divine commands” or moral intuitions and moral logic. This would make him a moral relativist.

    Surely he should respond here.

    Recent blog post: Why is science important?

  • Glen, perhaps you should read my original article (With God, anything can be permitted?) to clarify this. It’s not that Matt’s points are not obvious – just that they are not relevant to what I said in that article. In fact, I think Matt’s points really function as a diversion away from my article – as I said strawmannery.

    And you do the same. I did not conclude (as you claim) “if divine authority really IS the basis of morality anything is permissible.” I don’t for one minute accept that “divine authority is the basis of morality.” However, the fact remains that some people do believe that. More importantly some people use that assertion whether they believe in it or not. Their use may be quite cynical (and any observation of US politics only encourages one to conclude that the god concept is almost always used cynically in politics).

    [Importantly – moral relativism is not limited to the use of a god concept – as I made clear in my comment on the use of “god, king and country” as a rallying cry to war, and in the highlighted disclaimer in my ordinal article].

    Glen – your science example actually reinforces what I am saying. We do achieve our understanding of reality from evidence, mathematical logic and the scientific method. [Importantly this is an “understanding” or incomplete picture of reality – not a “belief” as you claim].

    Now there are important differences between scientists in this understanding. It’s a vital part of the scientific process. These are resolved; our understanding is developed to a higher level, by reference to reality. By new data and experiential evidence.

    Reality, and our interaction with it, is what keep science honest. That’s an extremely powerful way of getting a truthful appreciation of the world and our place in it.

    Now – if you want to deny the scientific method, deny evidence, deny the need for validation against reality, you could get into the sort of “scientific relativism” advocated by some post-modernists, creationists and intelligent design advocates. You could use the equivalent of “divine commands” – “revealed knowledge.”And, of course, once you say “god did it” and avoid the scientific method you can use your own claim to revealed knowledge to support any picture of reality you choose.

    Glen – I don’t garble “the theists position” as you claim/ I merely pointed out that both groups of demonstrators in Afghanistan (women opposing laws restricting their human and sexual rights and men supporting those laws) were claiming their god was on their respective side.

    And, I was also reacting to those who have been accusing me, and other non-theists, of “moral relativism” because we don’t allow our moral/ethical positions to be ruled by the “divine commands” of others. A charge that is regularly made by Thinking Matters – see Atheists not allowed to criticise Hitler!).

    Recent blog post: Why is science important?

  • That should be:
    “place his “divine commands” over moral intuitions and moral logic.”

    Recent blog post: Why is science important?

  • Ken, I have read your original post. Matt has not misrepresented you in any way, so your claim of “straw mannery” is false.

    Speaking of straw mannery – you have suggested that I wish to deny the scientific method and the use of evidence. How is this not a straw man? And like it out not, a belief that we should use the scientific method is a belief, no matter how true it may be.

    And if you were reacting tot he claim that some theists make, that your beliefs commit you to relativism, then your reply really DOES garble the theists position, exactly as I noted. Your reply suggests that theism leads to conflicting positions. You would be correct if every single variety of theism is true. That really WOULD lead to a variety of conflicting moral positions. But seriously Ken, who actually thinks that every variety of theism is true?

    Recent blog post: I’m heading North

  • Glen – Matt clearly misrepresented me by playing with the word “justify”. Whereas both sides in Afghanistan “justified” their position using their god – they may not have been scientifically or logically “justified” in their arguments (to the extent that any logical argument took place). Similarly, Christian supporters of apartheid, slavery, racism, feminism, etc., etc. may have “justified” their positions using their god whereas one side or both sides may have been wrong in a scientific or logical sense.

    Matt played with the two meanings of that word – consequently he ended up knocking down straw men.

    I am sorry – you may have misunderstood my use of “you” – it was not aimed at you but used in a purely rhetorical sense. I certainly didn’t want to claim that you, Glen, “wish to deny the scientific method and the use of evidence.” I don’t know enough about you to make such a claim.

    I still think, though, your use of the term “belief” in referring to science is inappropriate as the scientific acceptance or speculation of a specific idea or theory is quite different to belief – as used in the normal sense. And that comes back to the basically unique and powerful way that the scientific method enables us to form a truthful picture of reality. “Belief” as normally used is very often divorced from evidence and less acceptable to change than is the case for scientific ideas. However, although an interesting subject of discussion that is a diversion here.

    The fact remains, Glen, that some theists are using their god to “justify” quite different positions. This is independent of their god actually existing (I don’t think any of them do) or their “theism being true” (I don”t think any of them are – and you think most of them aren’t true).

    But it’s got nothing to do with the existence or other wise of their gods, the truth or otherwise of their theisms. Their gods are still used to “justify” their different, contrary, moral conclusions. That’s the thing about gods – they can be made to say anything.

    Consequently gods can be used to make anything possible. An extreme form of moral relativism.

    Recent blog post: The necessity of science

  • Ken, again you’ve just misunderstood what is happening here. Matt did not play with the use of that word justify” at all.

    If your original point – which both Matt and I understood – was only that various people say that their moral views are justified, and they do so because this or that religion says so, then your point is trivial. Some people say that their beliefs about the world are justified by science too, even though their belief is false. In both cases people are using something to “justify” (i.e. rationalise or bolster) their beliefs, and in each case they are wrong.

    But, as has been clearly pointed out to you, this has nothing at all to say about whether morality really is grounded in God.

    Ken, you’re complaining that your argument has been misrepresented. It has not been. It’s possible, however, that you never really grasped implications of what you said to begin with.

    Recent blog post: I’m heading North

  • My point, that people “justify” some of the most inhuman actions using their god, is trivial!! Tell that to the victims of the world trade centre massacre, the Jonestown mass suicide, etc., etc. And extending that justification to other non-logical bases (god, king, country, ideology) tell that to the victims of Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Stalin, Franco, etc.

    Neither is it trivial that creationists, intelligent design proponents, some climate change deniers, etc., use science in the same way to “justify” their positions which don’t correspond to reality.

    This has nothing to do with whether or not the logic of the universe or human morality are “grounded in a god.” That’s a separate issue.(Glen, if you read my article you will know that it doesn’t deal with that argument). However, it is interesting that those who attempt to impose their inhuman morality or unscientific ideas do often claim they are “grounded in their god.”

    My point is that approach, arguing on the basis of a god, arguing for blind following of “divine commands” can produce an extreme moral relativism (and “scientific” realism).

    Your Thinking Mater mates accuse non-theists like me of suffering from moral relativism. I have shown in several posts that this is false. And that there is a secular basis for the morality of us all (theists and non-theists alike). But I think the fact still remains that a morality justified by “divine commands” and overriding our normal moral intuitions and logic does lead to moral relativism and can be used to justify the most inhuman actions.

    Recent blog post: The necessity of science

  • Ken, then you have no choice but to endorse the following:

    The problem with science is that with science, anything goes. People use it to justify horrible things.

    Why are you so anti-science, Ken?

    (Don’t bother saying that those horrible things aren’t really scientifically or logically justified. Remember: You said that’s not what you meant by “justify.”)

  • Glen, the difference between science and belief in a god, king, country, etc (and using this to justify whatever one wants) is that science as a process has a unique relationship with reality. Scientific ideas are tested and validated against reality.

    That is why any justification of slavery, racism, anti-women policies, genocide, etc., etc., by claiming a scientific backing can be tested. It’s a fact that throughout our history we have come to erroneous conclusions about such issues and justified then by claiming scientific evidence. But in the end the very process of science has discredited these approaches.

    Of course there are those who take a “relativist” approach to science. Using whatever “evidence” supports their preconceived ideas/dogma, ignoring whatever evidence doesn’t (and arguing for a distortion of science where the testing/validation processes are deleted). This relativist approach is common to the creationist/ intelligent design proponents and some of the climate change deniers.

    So, no Glen – I do not support your claim that anything goes in science. Reality keeps us honest.

    Recent blog post: Another chance to ignore our true religious diversity

  • Very well explained, really what this kind of arguments would bring up is only separation and doubts in people's mind,and hurt religious people.

  • I'm only speaking about Christianity here

    If a Christian committed murder on the basis that God told him so, as a Christian I would be in no hesitation to legally prosecute him. The Bible is very clear on this, for start, "Thou shalt not murder".

    In a million year, this will be the same. Murder will still be wrong according to The Bible.

    Another example is abortion. The seculars are using science to try to justify abortion. So tomorrow, the secular might say it's ok to murder 5 weeks old fetus, but in 10-20 years they might say "oh actually, you shouldn't abort a fetus that is older than 3 week old as that would be murder". So if that happen, wouldn't that mean the seculars have justified murder for 10-20 years?

    Contrary to pro-choice (btw, lucky they have choice, sad that they chose abortion), The Bible is clear about abortion. It will be the same tomorrow or in a million year.

    On the topic of slavery, it is the same. The Bible is very clear, that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God. Jesus summarised God's law into love God and love others as yourself.

    So I think it is ridiculous to say that with God anything is permitted, at least it is from Christian's point of view.

  • How interesting.
    I was not aware of the “shoe is on the other foot” argument until I heard it recently from Christopher Hitchens to whom I responded here:
    http://atheismisdead.blogspot.com/2010/01/with-whom-are-all-things-permissible.html