Observations

“If there is no absolute moral standard, then one cannot say in a final sense that anything is right or wrong. By absolute we mean that which always applies, that which provides a final or ultimate standard. There must be an absolute if there are to be morals, and there must be an absolute if there are to be real values. If there is no absolute beyond man’s ideas, then there is no final appeal to judge between individuals and groups whose moral judgements conflict. We are merely left with conflicting opinions.”

Schaeffer, Francis. How Then Should We Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture 

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15 Responses to Observations

  1. arthurdobrin says:

    If religious morality is absolute, why are there so many disagreements amongst Christians—or Jews or Muslims—about what to do?
    That isn’t to say that there aren’t absolute moral judgments, such as it is wrong to dip an infant in boiling oil. Theists, agnostics, atheists and non-theists can all agree on that.
    It’s wonderful that some people are good because they believe in God.But we know that not all people who believe in God are good.

  2. jackhudson says:

    If religious morality is absolute, why are there so many disagreements amongst Christians—or Jews or Muslims—about what to do?

    I would be curious about what you think these moral disagreements are, amongst Christians anyway. While there may be a lot of variation about style of worship, or the validity of certain traditions, or even authority structures I think there is very little disagreement on basic moral principles, with a few exceptions.

    That isn’t to say that there aren’t absolute moral judgments, such as it is wrong to dip an infant in boiling oil. Theists, agnostics, atheists and non-theists can all agree on that.

    The problem here is that in actuality people aren’t always in agreement about the morality of such things. It was not uncommon amongst pagan civilizations to sacrifice infants, and the Romans and Greeks had no qualms about disposing with unwanted children. Even in modern day India and China unwanted female babies can be dumped in a river. We even have Western bio-ethicists arguing that we should be able to kill children up to a certain age. So I would disagree that such morality is universal or innate.

    It’s wonderful that some people are good because they believe in God. But we know that not all people who believe in God are good.

    The problem with this of course is that if we can’t objectively define ‘good’ then we can’t agree anyone is good, thus we can’t in fact ‘know’ atheists are good.

    I appreciate your comments.

  3. arthurdobrin says:

    Protestants and Catholics disagreed about whether it was OK to torture someone into disavowing their new-found theology.
    Quakers and Amish are pacifists; the military is full of chaplains who bless soldiers who go out to kill.
    Jehova Witnesses won’t salute the flag; others say that render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
    Catholicism official opposes abortion; most Episcopalians accept it.
    Once most Christians didn’t hesitate to burn witches; I don’t think any do today.
    How much more do you want?

  4. jackhudson says:

    I think the problem with this is that even if one conceded all of the above it would not negate the existence of objective morality or the necessity of it for reliably resolving moral conflict.

    But I would go farther than that. Part of what you wrote above simply isn’t factually true or is exaggerated; for example we do have Quaker chaplains as well of those of other ‘peace church’ traditions like the Mennonites.

    And while the practice of Christianity can certainly be faulted in different times and places in history, its history is progressive because of a consistent to desire to adhere to an objective moral standard. In fact there would be no basis to claim that torture or witch-trials were morally wrong absent such a standard.

    In much the same way as Martin Luther King Jr. Called upon the US to “cash this check”, that is to adhere to apply consistently the principles articulated in the Declaration regarding liberty and equality, Christians are constantly having to return to their source document as a standard by which to correct error and human corruption. That wouldn’t happen unless there was an objective morality to adhere to.

    The fact that some have strayed from or continue to wrangle over the application of moral standards isn’t evidence against the existence of an objective morality but a demonstration of the importance of it.

    Those are just a few quick thoughts on the subject. Thanks again for your response and even handed tone.

  5. arthurdobrin says:

    I also think that Christianity’s history is progressive.
    But when you say that—and say that some have strayed from moral standards—you are using a standard that, it seems to me, is independent of religion.
    What I am suggesting is that the objective moral standard you seek is found in the very center of human nature. We simply couldn’t survive if people were only self-seeking, duplicitous, etc. Morality derives from our need as a species to survive.
    Religion sometimes reinforces that. But sometimes it undermines it. When the world is divided into the ins and the outs, then we have problems.
    This is a long and complex discussion and this isn’t the forum for it. I’m only making a suggestion that there is a way of understanding and getting to an objective morality without the necessity of it being rooted in a belief in God.
    On a smaller point: I know that there may be Quaker chaplains. My point was simply that some Christians eschew all violence, others occasionally endorse it.

  6. jackhudson says:

    I also think that Christianity’s history is progressive.
    But when you say that—and say that some have strayed from moral standards—you are using a standard that, it seems to me, is independent of religion.

    Well yes, exactly – I am contending that the standard is rooted in God, not a particular religion.

    What I am suggesting is that the objective moral standard you seek is found in the very center of human nature. We simply couldn’t survive if people were only self-seeking, duplicitous, etc. Morality derives from our need as a species to survive.

    I actually agree with the idea we have an innate ability to comprehend moral standards, the problem I have with the above statement is that when you tie that standard to our ability to survive as a species, you aren’t really elevating one set of behaviors over another. While it may be true that we wouldn’t survive if we were ‘only’ self-seeking, the fact remains that we often are self-seeking so it may be that we cannot survive without being self-seeking; or duplicitous or violent or unfaithful, etc. In which case as far as survival is concerned, don’t you think there is just as strong an argument for the morality of those behaviors as the ones I assume you and I prefer?

    Which rather brings us back to the main contention of the quote I posted – if there isn’t a transcendent grounding for morality, then we are merely left with conflicting opinions with no sure standard of what we ought to do.

    Religion sometimes reinforces that. But sometimes it undermines it. When the world is divided into the ins and the outs, then we have problems.

    Sure – but I don’t think morality is grounded in religion per se, anymore than nature is grounded in science. Science relies on the idea that there exists an objective reality and a set of laws which govern that reality otherwise science would be useless. In the same way if morals have no objective existence outside of human inclinations, then there is no way to say whether something is ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’. Religious ideas are about partly about understanding and applying moral principles – religion may succeed or fail in this endeavor, but that doesn’t change moral standards themselves.

    This is a long and complex discussion and this isn’t the forum for it. I’m only making a suggestion that there is a way of understanding and getting to an objective morality without the necessity of it being rooted in a belief in God.

    It is a complex discussion, and I prefer to have such discussions over a meal or a beer. But I appreciate the time you have taken to respond.

    And I agree that if objective morality exists (as we both seem to agree it does) then there may be other ways to know about it. But there doesn’t seem to be other ways to be confident it exists objectively.

    On a smaller point: I know that there may be Quaker chaplains. My point was simply that some Christians eschew all violence, others occasionally endorse it.

    Point taken.

  7. The Judge says:

    “There must be an absolute if there are to be morals, and there must be an absolute if there are to be real values.”

    I really don’t understand this reasoning, and would be grateful if some Christian could explain it for me. As far as I’m concerned morality is determined contextually. Similar actions gain different (or even opposite) moral weight depending on the situation. Suppose I said that morality is something that evolves and grows and changes with history, rather than always being fixed (which is what I believe). That doesn’t mean we can’t behave morally, it just means that our ways of doing so are different from what they would be for other people who lived in other times and other cultures.

    I appreciate the angst that comes from apprehending that we can’t “fix” morality. But I think this type of aspiration only leads to rigidity and therefore repression. To be moral is inherently to be flexible, otherwise it’s just law.

  8. Justin says:

    Well, there’s a difference between saying that morality is absolute vs saying that we know what is moral at all times. One is an ontological claim, and the other an epistemological claim.

    We recognize that math is objective. Yet we don’t know what all of the axioms are, and sometimes we labor under false mathematical notions. That doesn’t make mathematics subjective.

    No doubt morality is complicated at times. But even if it is contextual (in moral dilemmas), that does not mean that factual statements about moral choices cannot be made.

    When we look at the basics of morality, they really haven’t changed over time. Punishments have changed, but what has been considered moral behavior has not. Further, many apparent differences in morality are really differences in beliefs about matters of fact, not morality.

  9. Mike D says:

    I think the value in pointing out the disparity of moral norms even among those who profess the same core beliefs is that if we cannot reach a consensus on a valid epistemic methodology by which to accurately and objectively derive God’s moral commands, their ontological existence is essentially meaningless to us. What good are absolute morals if no one agrees on how we’re supposed to figure out what they are?

    Of course, I don’t think that “absolute morals” exist. Moral values are abstract conceptualizations, not ontological objects. They’re derived from the inescapable fact that we are, as a species, innately bonded and interdependent. For us, cooperative group living is not a choice but a fundamental survival strategy. We are each utterly dependent on others for every aspect of our survival and well-being, and therefor none of us has the luxury of moral autonomy. Gregarious living necessitates the establishment of behavioral norms, which act as sociocultural extensions of our evolutionary past.

    There’s a great book on the subject by Marc Hauser called “Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong” that delves into much of modern research in cognitive psychology about how we make our moral decisions (or don’t make them, as the case may be). It’s humbling, to say the least.

  10. Justin says:

    What good are absolute morals if no one agrees on how we’re supposed to figure out what they are?

    That would be a valid point if we were simply so confused in every moral choice that we never got it right. Suffice to say that we’ve figured out many of the basics. The ontological significance, however, is greatly different from the epistemological one, because it means morality was discovered, not created, by humans.

    But again, I think when you start to examine the supposed “differences”, they’re mostly differences on matters of fact, not morality. Abortion is a great example. Pro-choice people do not say “it’s okay to murder”, they say “what we’re doing isn’t murder”. No disagreement on morals, only matters of fact (in this case, when life begins). Hindus don’t kill cows because they think they are sacred. If we thought they were sacred in the west, we might avoid killing them as well. The variance in this case is likewise a matter of fact, not morality. So much for differences in cultural norms.

    Variances in punishment also add to the confusion, but the underlying morals are still identical in most cases. But, the consequences of immorality vary as well, giving reason for varying punishment. The crime is still the same, however.

  11. jackhudson says:

    I think the value in pointing out the disparity of moral norms even among those who profess the same core beliefs is that if we cannot reach a consensus on a valid epistemic methodology by which to accurately and objectively derive God’s moral commands, their ontological existence is essentially meaningless to us. What good are absolute morals if no one agrees on how we’re supposed to figure out what they are?

    As Justin discussed above, I don’t think the fact the fact that we wrangle over moral semantics or the application of certain moral standards means there is no consensus or value in attempting to understand the God’s moral commands, anymore than the fact that we wrangle over understanding certain natural phenomena means the existence of such phenomena is meaningless to us. Obviously if morals exist, then striving to understand and apply them is worthwhile. If they don’t actually exist in any objective sense, then there isn’t much use in considering them at all.

    Of course, I don’t think that “absolute morals” exist. Moral values are abstract conceptualizations, not ontological objects. They’re derived from the inescapable fact that we are, as a species, innately bonded and interdependent. For us, cooperative group living is not a choice but a fundamental survival strategy. We are each utterly dependent on others for every aspect of our survival and well-being, and therefor none of us has the luxury of moral autonomy. Gregarious living necessitates the establishment of behavioral norms, which act as sociocultural extensions of our evolutionary past.

    The fact that we are ‘innately bonded and interdependent’ is actually irrelevant from a moral standpoint. Any number of organisms can be described in the same way – but this reality doesn’t necessitate an expectation of adhering to certain behavioral standards.

    Also, while we may be inherently gregarious and cooperative, history demonstrates that we are also given to conflict, violence, dishonesty, promiscuity, greed, and general selfishness. If moral values are derived from our tendencies as a species (even that those which enhance our survival and well being) then there is no certain basis for selecting one set of values over another.

  12. Mike D says:

    As Justin discussed above, I don’t think the fact the fact that we wrangle over moral semantics or the application of certain moral standards means there is no consensus or value in attempting to understand the God’s moral commands, anymore than the fact that we wrangle over understanding certain natural phenomena means the existence of such phenomena is meaningless to us

    Neither answer given addresses the most pertinent issue, which is that if morals are objective, then they must be objectively discernible. The tendencies we have to value prohibitions on murder, lying, stealing, etc., can be quite simply traced to our innate need to live as gregarious and cooperative interdependent creatures. It’s the more complex moral questions – “Should I take one life to save three?” – that elude such simplistic theological reductionism.

    The fact that we are ‘innately bonded and interdependent’ is actually irrelevant from a moral standpoint. Any number of organisms can be described in the same way – but this reality doesn’t necessitate an expectation of adhering to certain behavioral standards.

    On the contrary, it does, for one simple fact: unlike other animals, we are capable of reflecting on our behavior and considering multiple probable outcomes to future behavior. This fact cannot be overlooked in the role it plays in our behavior as we develop complex interdependent societies.

    Also, while we may be inherently gregarious and cooperative, history demonstrates that we are also given to conflict, violence, dishonesty, promiscuity, greed, and general selfishness. If moral values are derived from our tendencies as a species (even that those which enhance our survival and well being) then there is no certain basis for selecting one set of values over another.

    This confuses, again, the fundamental nature of moral values: they are concepts, not ontological objects. Thus the notion of selfishness, greed, promiscuity, etc., being “moral” is inherently paradoxical – all concepts, including morality, are defined arbitrarily, and morality is and has always been accepted as a conceptualization of what is for the greater well-being of humanity. We recognize quite intuitively that we could not flourish as a culture of thieves, liars, and murderers. Living gregariously, particularly as creatures capable of self-reflection, creates a need for sociocultural norms that establish hierarchical categories of behaviors based on their ability to contribute to or hinder our well-being.

    Further, it’s too often overlooked that most moral behavior is not the product of conscious thought at all, but of evolutionarily selected subconscious behavioral traits. This fact has been thoroughly documented, most famously in the Trolley Problem.

    And finally, pushing morality back to God does not solve the dilemma you find in sociobiology. One could just as well ask why one should value goodness, value God’s commands, value eternal well-being, etc. At a certain point, as Sam Harris recognized, we treat our valuing of certain ideals as axiomatic. This holds regardless of whether you choose, arbitrarily, to terminate the regress in nature or in divine mystery.

  13. jackhudson says:

    Neither answer given addresses the most pertinent issue, which is that if morals are objective, then they must be objectively discernible.

    Actually it did address the issue – the objective existence of a thing is not dependent on our ability to discern a thing. There are certainly objects in the universe that we aren’t aware of, or that we have difficulty discerning that exist nonetheless. Now one may contend that if something isn’t able to be discerned it may be that our consideration of it is irrelevant, but no one here is saying morals aren’t discernible at all.

    The tendencies we have to value prohibitions on murder, lying, stealing, etc., can be quite simply traced to our innate need to live as gregarious and cooperative interdependent creatures. It’s the more complex moral questions – “Should I take one life to save three?” – that elude such simplistic theological reductionism.

    No one is suggesting we should utilize simplistic theological reductionism to discern moral. But if morals don’t actually exist, then the question, “Should I take one life to save three?” is certainly merely a matter of preference, as the quote above indicates.

    On the contrary, it does, for one simple fact: unlike other animals, we are capable of reflecting on our behavior and considering multiple probable outcomes to future behavior. This fact cannot be overlooked in the role it plays in our behavior as we develop complex interdependent societies.

    Sure – but reflecting on a set of facts doesn’t tell us what choices are right. Obviously any number of people reflect on their behavioral choices and decide to intentionally harm others, steal and rape.

    This confuses, again, the fundamental nature of moral values: they are concepts, not ontological objects.

    Certainly you think so and naturalism requires this, but the point is that if this is indeed the case then the claim above that we are left with no final authority to appeal to concerning our moral choices is certainly true. Your statement essentially affirms this claim.

    Thus the notion of selfishness, greed, promiscuity, etc., being “moral” is inherently paradoxical – all concepts, including morality, are defined arbitrarily, and morality is and has always been accepted as a conceptualization of what is for the greater well-being of humanity. We recognize quite intuitively that we could not flourish as a culture of thieves, liars, and murderers. Living gregariously, particularly as creatures capable of self-reflection, creates a need for sociocultural norms that establish hierarchical categories of behaviors based on their ability to contribute to or hinder our well-being.

    I disagree that we necessarily recognize ‘intuitively’ that “we could not flourish as a culture of thieves, liars, and murderers.” In fact I would contend ‘human flourishing’ is a late 20th century concept predicated on other well developed and assumed truths that aren’t evident in naturalism.
    Consider that as we speak on the coast of Somalia there is an entire economy that is springing up around piracy of passing ships. It would seem that this group of people sees theft and murder as a benefit to their culture, contra your claim that people ‘intuitively’ choose otherwise. If morals don’t exist as objective standards which apply universally to human behavior, then the choices of the Somali pirates are as legitimate as those of Red Cross workers.

    Further, it’s too often overlooked that most moral behavior is not the product of conscious thought at all, but of evolutionarily selected subconscious behavioral traits. This fact has been thoroughly documented, most famously in the Trolley Problem.

    Even if true, doesn’t negate the objective existence of moral standards, nor the fact that an absolute standard is neccesary when we do make such choices.

    And finally, pushing morality back to God does not solve the dilemma you find in sociobiology. One could just as well ask why one should value goodness, value God’s commands, value eternal well-being, etc. At a certain point, as Sam Harris recognized, we treat our valuing of certain ideals as axiomatic. This holds regardless of whether you choose, arbitrarily, to terminate the regress in nature or in divine mystery.

    Sam Harris may conveniently treat certain ideals as axiomatic, but I think those who do so are hopelessly naïve with regard to human nature. As per the quote above, what ‘pushing morality back to God’ achieves is to provide a transcendent, unchanging and objective source for moral standards derived from an authority who is a position to issue such standards. Short of that, history demonstrates humans will modify moral standards to suit their own interests.

  14. Mike D says:

    Actually it did address the issue – the objective existence of a thing is not dependent on our ability to discern a thing. There are certainly objects in the universe that we aren’t aware of, or that we have difficulty discerning that exist nonetheless. Now one may contend that if something isn’t able to be discerned it may be that our consideration of it is irrelevant, but no one here is saying morals aren’t discernible at all.

    That’s the whole point. You’re claiming that morals are absolute, but when pressed on how we can know what these absolute moral proscriptions are, you digress. Absolute morals are worthless unless we absolutely know what they are. Clearly, throughout history, moral behavior has not been that simple. Human moral dilemmas are too complex for any absolute solution to be either apparent or, arguably, possible. If it is beyond our epistemic horizon, it is of no value to us even if it does exist.

    Your example of Somalian pirates is actually a good topic. These people are not cavalier, jolly pirates delighting in the suffering of others. They’re desperate individuals reacting to extreme poverty, disease, and famine. It’s easy for us to sip a latte and muse over broadband connections whether their behavior is justified, but for them, the lines between right and wrong become blurred in the face of desperation. There’s a reason why crime is positively correlated with poverty, and it ain’t because poor people are just jerks.

    This is not much different that the fact that the US was responsible for the genocide of some quarter-million Japanese civilians. It was, of course, justified circumstantially. Is it wrong to slaughter a quarter million people? Is it wrong to slaughter a quarter million people on the chance that it might save millions of lives? This is, by definition, relative morality: the rightness of the action is determined relative to the circumstance. It’s the same concept as stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children, but on a much grander and more terrible scale.

    Sure – but reflecting on a set of facts doesn’t tell us what choices are right. Obviously any number of people reflect on their behavioral choices and decide to intentionally harm others, steal and rape.

    I didn’t say that reflecting on a set of facts reveals moral values. You suggested that interdependence is true of many animals, and I agreed. But the ability to reflect on our behavior is a necessary condition for the understanding of moral proscriptions, and why the fact of our interdependence takes on greater complexity and significance than it does for animals. You go on to say….

    Certainly you think so and naturalism requires this, but the point is that if this is indeed the case then the claim above that we are left with no final authority to appeal to concerning our moral choices is certainly true. Your statement essentially affirms this claim.

    The entire thesis of the Moral Landscape is that we can in fact derive objective values from objective facts about the human condition… provided that we value well-being. You may choose to object, as WLC did in his debate with Harris, that this simply treats our valuing of well-being as axiomatic, without telling us why we ought to value well-being. But theism does not resolve this problem, because, as I said previously, it does not tell us why we ought to value God’s authority, God’s commands, or goodness itself. To put it another way: if you can’t agree that we should intrinsically value our well-being, then why should we intrinsically value our eternal well-being? You’re forced to simply invoke a regress, and arrive at the same axiomatic conclusion: that we should intrinsically value God’s commands, our eternal well-being, etc. In doing so, God’s existence become superfluous since we can simply terminate the regress at our own human well-being and derive objective moral proscriptions from observable facts about human nature without invoking a deity.

    Further, regressing morals to God makes them inherently subjective, not objective – particularly if you subscribe to divine command theory, as Craig does. Under DCM, it was circumstantially righteous for the Israelites to slaughter children in Canaan. So which is it – is it objectively and absolutely wrong to slaughter children, or is it relative to the circumstance? If God’s command is by definition the absolute right action, then the action itself is not intrinsically wrong, but only circumstantially right or wrong relative to God’s subjective will.

  15. jackhudson says:

    That’s the whole point. You’re claiming that morals are absolute, but when pressed on how we can know what these absolute moral proscriptions are, you digress.

    I didn’t ‘digress’ – I was just pointing out that our inability to know a thing doesn’t negate the existence of a thing. I do however think we can know objectively real moral standards because they have been revealed to us by the only entity capable of communicating them to us with any certainty. I have never digressed from that fact.

    Absolute morals are worthless unless we absolutely know what they are. Clearly, throughout history, moral behavior has not been that simple. Human moral dilemmas are too complex for any absolute solution to be either apparent or, arguably, possible. If it is beyond our epistemic horizon, it is of no value to us even if it does exist.

    The fact that moral dilemmas are complex doesn’t mean morals themselves are complex. Humans create the circumstances that make morality difficult to apply – we lie to prevent some unpleasant circumstance, that lie leads us to covering up the lie, and that cover-up leads us to compromise our standards, and we may actually end up harming others in the process of attempting to maintain that cover-up. This doesn’t make the straight forward command to ‘not lie’ any less forceful or applicable – indeed had it been applied in the beginning the series of complexities and dilemmas would have been avoided to begin with. This doesn’t undermine the moral objectivity of the original command or principle.

    Your example of Somalian pirates is actually a good topic. These people are not cavalier, jolly pirates delighting in the suffering of others. They’re desperate individuals reacting to extreme poverty, disease, and famine. It’s easy for us to sip a latte and muse over broadband connections whether their behavior is justified, but for them, the lines between right and wrong become blurred in the face of desperation. There’s a reason why crime is positively correlated with poverty, and it ain’t because poor people are just jerks.

    Of course this begs the question – why are they suffering such poverty? Human corruption, greed, selfishness, and violence certainly played a part their present condition. The consequences they now face may be leading them to further bad moral choices, but it doesn’t make those choices any less wrong. In fact it only further verifies the necessity of not going down an immoral path to begin with – because over time we become mired in the consequences of those bad choices. Nothing in naturalism or subjective morality of course will alleviate these circumstances. And were they today to apply certain straight forward moral principles, it would not immediately alleviate their condition, but it would certainly be a foundation for the betterment of their society – certainly more so than piracy which creates even more suffering.

    This is not much different that the fact that the US was responsible for the genocide of some quarter-million Japanese civilians. It was, of course, justified circumstantially. Is it wrong to slaughter a quarter million people? Is it wrong to slaughter a quarter million people on the chance that it might save millions of lives? This is, by definition, relative morality: the rightness of the action is determined relative to the circumstance. It’s the same concept as stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children, but on a much grander and more terrible scale.

    The logical fallacy you are committing here is saying because there were past circumstances where relative morality was employed, or where certain actions were justified by subjective considerations, it proves objective moral standards don’t exist. But that doesn’t follow logically – the fact that someone justifies stealing bread to feed one’s children doesn’t render the moral command not to steal illegitimate. It may render it difficult to apply, and it may present a conflict in one’s mind, but it doesn’t prove for the sake of our discussion that moral standards don’t exist, or that the absence of absolute moral standards don’t render moral considerations merely a matter of preference. In fact it rather proves it.

    I didn’t say that reflecting on a set of facts reveals moral values. You suggested that interdependence is true of many animals, and I agreed. But the ability to reflect on our behavior is a necessary condition for the understanding of moral proscriptions, and why the fact of our interdependence takes on greater complexity and significance than it does for animals. You go on to say….

    Certainly you think so and naturalism requires this, but the point is that if this is indeed the case then the claim above that we are left with no final authority to appeal to concerning our moral choices is certainly true. Your statement essentially affirms this claim.

    The entire thesis of the Moral Landscape is that we can in fact derive objective values from objective facts about the human condition… provided that we value well-being. You may choose to object, as WLC did in his debate with Harris, that this simply treats our valuing of well-being as axiomatic, without telling us why we ought to value well-being. But theism does not resolve this problem, because, as I said previously, it does not tell us why we ought to value God’s authority, God’s commands, or goodness itself. To put it another way: if you can’t agree that we should intrinsically value our well-being, then why should we intrinsically value our eternal well-being? You’re forced to simply invoke a regress, and arrive at the same axiomatic conclusion: that we should intrinsically value God’s commands, our eternal well-being, etc. In doing so, God’s existence become superfluous since we can simply terminate the regress at our own human well-being and derive objective moral proscriptions from observable facts about human nature without invoking a deity.

    Well there are many reasons we should value God’s authority on the subject of morality. One important reason is related to the very reason Harris articulates – because the moral standards God provides are foundational to human flourishing. Another reason would be because as the Creator of humanity, God would be in the best position to communicate those principles by which humans operate. Another reason would be as I have mentioned before, as flawed creatures we are unable to consistently act morally – we corrupt morals to conform to our own selfish desires and ambitions. So a moral system derived from humans is invariably flawed in this respect, and as God isn’t flawed in this respect He is in a superior position to issue moral commands and principles. So there are many reasons why a revealed and transcendent source morality is superior to Harris’ recommendations.

    Further, regressing morals to God makes them inherently subjective, not objective – particularly if you subscribe to divine command theory, as Craig does. Under DCM, it was circumstantially righteous for the Israelites to slaughter children in Canaan. So which is it – is it objectively and absolutely wrong to slaughter children, or is it relative to the circumstance? If God’s command is by definition the absolute right action, then the action itself is not intrinsically wrong, but only circumstantially right or wrong relative to God’s subjective will.

    I think this is more a question of authority and consequence than it is of a particular moral command. The question arises, does God as the Creator of humanity have the authority to issue commands, judge humans for their disobedience to those commands and set consequences for such disobedience? The command to ‘not murder’ is a command that exists for a purpose – to prevent people from acting as if any human has the authority to take another human life according to one’s own interests. God never forbade killing as a means of punishment for disobeying His commands. In fact the first command to not kill comes with command to put the murderer to death! So His command to the Israelites wasn’t contrary to His command to not murder, because the Israelites weren’t murdering nor acting contrary to the principle for which the command not to murder was given.

    And if God doesn’t have the authority to command punishment for moral disobedience, who does? However If it is agreed He does have this authority then He can decide the consequences for transgression – whether by His direct action or through human action. Once that is realized the fact that God utilized an army of men rather than an earthquake to judge the Canaanites the point is somewhat moot. The Israelites were an instrument of judgment in this case, not individuals simply deciding to modify moral precepts according to their own inclinations. I think we moderns find this offensive in part because of our view of individuality. We think if I did something evil, it shouldn’t have an impact on anyone else – my children and neighbors shouldn’t suffer because of my bad choices.

    That obviously isn’t the way it works in practice – if I am an alcoholic it affects everyone around me, and has greater societal impacts as well. It appears to work the same way with God’s judgment, at least in this life. A nation can suffer because of the choices of leaders or groups of individuals – the Canaanites suffered consequences because of the choices of their leaders and individuals in their nations. It just so happened that that suffering came swiftly at the hands of the Israelite army rather than the slow suffering of the inevitable consequence of evil choices.

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