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Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part III

My first post in this series, Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I, I examined Peter Singer’s version of the Euthyphro argument and demonstrated that it relies upon a strawman. In Part II I criticised Singer’s utilisation of the arbitrariness objection against divine command theory. Singer’s last objection comes as a rejoinder to the line of response sketched.

Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?[i]

The problems with this response have already been demonstrated. Singer suggests that the modern theists who propose this response hold that ‘good’ means approved by God. However, this is not what they propose. Some, like Quinn and Weirenga, suggest that what makes actions right or wrong are the commands of God. Adams holds that wrongness is the property of being contrary to God’s commands. Neither of these views entails that ‘God is good’ means ‘God is approved’ by God.

In order for Singer’s objection to be something other than a straw man, it needs to be reformulated to deal with theories like the ones actually proposed by defenders of divine command theory. One such formulation is suggested, though not endorsed, by Edward Weirenga.

[I]f to be morally good is to do no wrong, and if what is wrong is what is forbidden by God, then to say that God is good is just to say that he never does what he forbids himself to do. But there is no moral value in never doing what one forbids oneself to do.[ii]

This objection is problematic. Firstly, the last premise affirms that there is no moral value in never doing what one forbids oneself to do; i.e. there is no moral value in living by the standards you set yourself, so to speak. This is false. There very clearly is moral value in avoiding hypocrisy and hypocrisy involves, in part, not following the standards one lays down for one’s own behaviour. Moreover, the very notion at the heart of much contemporary, ethical theory is that of autonomy. Autonomy refers to the act of regulating one’s own behaviour in light of the laws or principles of which one approves.

Finally, note that Weirenga’s objection begins with “if to be morally good is to do no wrong … then”. [Emphasis added]. The argument assumes that goodness is defined purely in terms of doing one’s duty. This was not claimed in the theory proposed and this assumption is at best controversial. Many ethical theories define ‘right’ in terms of a relationship to what is good and others see rightness as involving side constraints upon the quest for good. At best, what is needed is an argument as to why a theist must accept such a definition and none has been offered.

Paul Faber notes that within Presbyterian tradition there are strong precedents for not characterising goodness this way. He notes how God’s goodness is characterised in the Westminster Confession.[iii]

[M]ost loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him; and withal, most just, and terrible in His judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.[iv]

Here God’s goodness is not defined so much in terms of conformity to duties but in terms of various character traits or excellence. Virtues such as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc, hating actions that are wrong, praising and rewarding what is right. Nothing in divine command theory entails that God cannot have such attributes. The theory might have this implication if it also maintained that God has such traits because he is required to or if the virtues mentioned cannot be attributed to God without defining them in terms of various commands he has issued. However, none of this is necessary. God does not have to have a duty to have something in order to have it and such things as being loving, truthful, forgiving, etc. can all be understood without specifying any divine command.

[i] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3-4.
[ii] Edward Weirenga,
The Nature of God, 222.
[iii] Paul Faber, “The Euthyphro Objection to Divine Normative Theories: A Response”
Religious Studies 21 (1985): 564-567.
[iv] Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. 2, Article 1, 145.

Cross Posted at MandM

Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part II

In his work Practical Ethics Singer proposes a version of the Euthyphro dilemma to criticise a divine command theory of ethics,

Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.[i]

In my previous post, Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I, pointed out that his version of the Euthyphro argument relies upon a straw man. Divine command theory is not typically proposed as a theory about what is good but is usually restricted to deontic properties such as right and wrong. Its worth noting however that, this fact is not fatal to Singer’s position; it is possible to develop analogies to the Euthyphro that do not rely on this straw man. James Rachels is an example, in The Elements of Moral Philosophy he suggests that an action is right either because God commands it or he commands it because it is right. He then offers the same arguments Singer does to suggest that only by embracing the second horn of the dilemma which amounts to giving up divine command theory, can one escape absurdity.[ii]

The key argument Singer raises against divine command theory is, “if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad”.[iii] Singer couches this objection in terms of goodness and badness but the same objection can be raised with regards to claims that Gods commands constitutes what is right and wrong. Rachels for example states that divine command theory “leads to trouble” because “it represents Gods commands as arbitrary. It means God could have given different commands just as easily. He could have commanded us to be liars, and then lying, not truthfulness would be right.”[iv]

The objection is that divine command theory entails a certain counter-factual conditional; to use Singer’s example, if God commanded torture then torture would not be wrong. While Singer does not state that this conditional is false, he appears to take it for granted that it is. After all, if the conditional were true then the fact that divine command theory entails it would not constitute an objection to the theory. Unfortunately Singer provides no reason for thinking this conditional is false. He appears to think that it is obvious.

Phillip Quinn has given reasons for questioning this assumption. Quinn notes that a counter-factual conditional such as ‘If God commands torture then torture is not wrong’ is false only if the antecedent is true and the consequent false.[v] In other words, the conditional is only false in a situation where God in fact does command torture and torture in that situation is wrong. In order for Singer’s objection to be sound there needs to be a logically-possible situation in which God does offer the command in question and the action he commands is wrong. Is such a scenario logically possible?

It is doubtful it is. God is perfectly and maximally good. Hence, the first premise is true only if a perfectly-good being would command an action such as the torture of children. This is unlikely. The claim that a perfectly-good being would command something morally abhorrent is on the face of it incoherent. Hence, it is unlikely that such a situation is possible.

A former teacher of mine, Mane Hajdin, suggested to me that this assertion is too hasty a few years ago he offered me the following criticism,

[I]t is assumed that being good involves being loving, forgiving, etc, in all possible worlds. But why should we assume that? Why aren’t there worlds in which being good involves being cruel, ruthless, etc? To simply assume that, in this context, may leave the impression of begging the question.

Roy Perrett suggested to me that that there are possible states of affairs where the contingent and factual structure of the world would be so different that what we take as paradigms of virtue in fact are not. In such a world, torture may be conducive to human flourishing or be, in fact, a virtuous activity.There may be something to this response. The problem with this response is that it still fails to provide reasons for thinking that the above-mentioned conditional is false. In order for this conditional to be false it must be logically possible not just for God to command an action but for that action to be wrong in the given situation. Perrett and Hajdin provide us reasons for thinking that it is possible for a perfectly-good being to command actions such as torture or cruelty. However, the situations envisaged are ones in which torture is not, in fact, wrong. In the situation Perrett envisages, torture is, in fact, virtuous and in Hajdin’s torture is good. In such examples it is the virtuous nature of torture that makes it plausible to assume that a perfectly-good being could command it.

It remains doubtful whether a logically-possible situation in which God commands an action and that action is wrong could exist. This is because a perfectly-good being would not command wrongdoing. To the extent that we think a perfectly-good being could command a particular action, we have reasons for thinking the action permissible. On the other hand, to the extent that we think it is impossible for the action to be wrong we find it impossible to envisage how a perfectly-good being could command it.

In Part III, I will look at the emptiness objection.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[ii] James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 42.
[iii] Singer, Practical Ethics, 3.
[iv] Rachels The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 42
[v] Phillip Quinn, “Divine Command Theory,” in Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. H Lafollette (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 2000) 70.

Cross Posted at MandM

Peter Singer, The Euthyphro Dilemma & Divine Commands Part I

Perhaps the most common argument against an appeal to divine commands in ethical reasoning is the Euthyphro dilemma, first articulated by Plato and utilised by numerous critics of divine commands ever since. A representative example of this line of argument occurs in Peter Singer’s widely-acclaimed monograph Practical Ethics. In the first chapter of Practical Ethics, Singer offers the following argument.

[E]thics is not something intelligible only in the context of religion. I shall treat ethics entirely independent of religion. Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.[i]

Several features of this critique are noteworthy. Singer identifies a position known as the divine command theory of ethics. He construes this position as the view that “the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves.” He bases this on the testimony of “some theists”. Singer’s argument here consists of three stages. He proposes the famous dilemma proposed by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro. He then claims that divine command theory makes God’s commands arbitrary. He asserts that acceptance of divine command theory entails that paradigmatically-evil actions such as torture could be good. He concludes that divine command theory makes God’s goodness redundant,

Some modern theists have attempted to extricate themselves from this type of dilemma by maintaining that God is good and so could not possibly approve of torture; but these theists are caught in a trap of their own making, for what can they possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?[ii]

In this three part blog series I will respond to the Euthyphro dilemma. In this post I will comment upon Singer’s description of his opponents’ position and suggest it is a straw-man. In the next two posts I will assess the arguments he proposes and argue they are unsuccessful. Contrary to what is commonly asserted in ethics textbooks and first year philosophy lectures, I do not think the Euthyphro dilemma is sound.

As I stated above, Singer’s argument is an attack upon a position known in the literature as divine command theory or voluntarism. Schneewind notes that in the late Middle Ages two schools emerged as to the relationship between God and the existence of an objective law. The first and older position is known as Intellectualism. In this view, God does not create morality; rather, God’s will is guided by his intellectual knowledge of eternal moral standards. The second position is divine command theory. This position grounded the moral law not so much in God’s intellect but in his will. God himself creates the moral law.[iii]

It is worth noting at this juncture that divine command theory is only one possible way of construing the nature of divine law and since Singer only offers an argument against this position, even if his argument is sound it fails to establish that the idea of divine law is problematic. Nevertheless, even as a critique of this theory the argument appears to attack a straw man.

Singer construes divine command theory as claiming “the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves.’” It appears then that Singer characterises divine command theory as a theory about the meaning of the evaluative term “good”; however, this is a caricature.

Few, if any, notable defenders of divine command theory propose it as a theory about the meaning of the term ‘good’. This is demonstrated by examining the literature of those contemporary theists who do defend versions of the theory. A notable, contemporary defender of divine command theory is Robert Adams. In Divine Command Ethics Modified Again and later in his monograph Finite and Infinite Good, Adams puts forward the view that “ethical wrongness is (i.e., is identical with) the property of being contrary to the commands of a loving God”.[iv] [Emphasis original]

Note two things here; firstly, Adams does not offer a theory about ‘the good’ but explicitly limits his theory to deontological properties such as wrongness. Secondly, his theory is not about the meaning of terms; rather it is a metaphysical claim about identity.

This last distinction is important. Contemporary philosophy of language offers several examples of this distinction between two terms having the same meaning and two things being identical. One of the most famous is the relationship between water and H20. Water is H20. This is a claim of identity. The liquid on earth that we call water is hydrogen hydroxide. However, this is not a claim of meaning. The claim that water is H20 is not an analytic truth that is true in virtue of the meaning of the words, rather it is a claim discovered by empirical investigation. Moreover, a competent language user could refer to water and understand the meaning of this term without needing to know about the atomic structure H20. Similar examples are available with such claims as ‘the morning star is the evening star’ or ‘Superman is Clark Kent.’ In each case, we have a statement of identity that is distinct from the claim that two words have the same meaning. Adams then explicitly denies he is proposing the position Singer attributes to modern theists.

Similar things can be said about the other major defenders of divine command theory. William Alston holds that divine commands are constitutive of deontological properties and notes Adam’s identity claim as a paradigm of the type of relationship he is defending.[v]

Philip Quinn defends a version of divine command theory that is limited to the deontological status of actions.

In speaking of the deontological status of an action, I mean to refer to whether it has such properties as being morally permitted, being morally forbidden or prohibited, and being morally obligatory or required.[vi]

Quinn argues that God’s commands cause or bring about these properties. He specifically denies that he is offering a theory of ‘the good’ in general or that the relationship between God’s commands and moral properties is one of meaning. In fact, he argues against such a view.[vii]

Edward Weirenga defends a similar theory proposing that divine commands are those properties of actions that make them possess deontic properties such as right and wrong. He does not affirm that the word ‘good’ means commanded by God.[viii] Similarly, John Hare argues, “that what makes something obligatory for us is that God commands it”.[ix]

This is not just true of contemporary defenders of divine command theory. In a survey of the historical literature, Janine Marie Idziak notes that, historically, divine command theory was usually understood as a theory about what makes actions right and wrong and not a theory about the meaning of moral terms.[x] Moreover, historically, divine command theorists such as Locke[xi] and Puffendorf limited it to deontological properties and not to broader axiological properties such as goodness.

Robert Adams did defend a semantic theory in some of his earlier writings but, as noted, he later rejected his theory in favour of the one I sketched above. Moreover, the semantic theory Adams did initially defend bears little resemblance to the interpretation of divine command theory made by Singer. Adams explicitly asserted that his theory was limited to analysing the meaning of the word wrong and not broader notions such as goodness. Moreover, it was limited to an analysis of what the word means in Judeo-Christian discourse not what the word meant in general.[xii]

It is difficult then to ascertain to whom exactly Singer is referring when he states “Some theists” hold this view and he fails to provide any citations as to whom he is referring. He appears to attack a straw man that has little resemblance to the theory as it has usually been articulated and defended in both historical and contemporary literature.

Not only does Singer attack a straw man but attention to the arguments he uses reveals that in the very next sentence he changes his interpretation from a theory of meaning to a dependence or causal theory. Immediately after stating, “the very meaning of “good” [is nothing other than] what God approves”, Singer follows Plato in suggesting that either something is good because God approves of it or God approves of it because it is good.[xiii] However, this presupposes that the relationship between divine approval and goodness is some kind of asymmetrical relationship where one entity in the relationship is temporally or ontologically prior to the other.

If, as Singer maintains, divine command theory is the claim that “the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves’,” then the relationship between divine approval and goodness is not an asymmetrical relationship but rather a relationship of meaning so this dilemma simply does not apply.

Consider the following example. A person tells you that a bachelor is an unmarried man because the word bachelor means unmarried man. It would not make sense to respond to this claim ‘yes, but is he a bachelor because he is unmarried or is he unmarried because he is a bachelor?’ A person’s unmarried-ness is not prior to or the cause of his bachelorhood nor is his bachelorhood the cause of his being unmarried. His being unmarried is just a different way of referring to his bachelorhood. The relationship between a bachelor and an unmarried man is not causal; the relationship is one of meaning.

Immediately after stating that divine command theory is a theory about the meaning of terms, Singer offers an objection that presupposes it is not a semantic theory but a causal one. However, only a few lines later he offers the following objection to the theory “what can they [theists] possibly mean by the assertion that God is good? That God is approved by God?”[xiv] Here Singer’s objection relies on the claim that good means approved by God in order to generate the trap he refers to. Not only does Singer attack a straw man but also his target appears to change throughout the discussion. In fact, it appears to change in order to fit the objections raised.

In Part II I will look at the arbitrariness objection.

[i] Singer, Practical Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 3.
[ii] Ibid., 3-4.
[iii] Jerome Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 8-9.
[iv] Robert Adams, “Divine Command Meta-Ethics Modified Again,” Journal of Religious Ethics 7:1 (1979): 76.
[v] William Alston, “Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists,” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 303-304.
[vi] Phillip Quinn, “An Argument for Divine Command Theory,” in Christian Theism and the Problems of Philosophy, ed. Michael Beaty (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 291.
[vii] Ibid., 293.
[viii] Edward Weirenga, The Nature of God: An Inquiry into the Divine Attributes, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 215-27. See also “Utilitarianism and the Divine Command Theory,” American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984): 311-318 and “A Defensible Divine Command Theory,” Nous 17 (1983): 387-408.
[ix] John Hare, God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands and Human Autonomy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 49.
[x] Janine Maree Idziak, “In Search of Good Positive Reasons for an Ethics of Divine Commands: A Catalogue of Arguments,” Faith and Philosophy 6:1 (1989): 60.
[xi] For a defence of the claim that Locke was a voluntarist see Francis Oakley & Elliot W. Urdang, “Locke, Natural Law and God,” Natural Law Forum, 11 (1966): 92-109.
[xii] Robert Adams, “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness” In Divine Commands and Morality, ed. Paul Helm (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 83-108.
[xiii] Singer, Practical Ethics, 4.
[xiv] Ibid., 3-4.
[xv] Ibid.
[xvi] Ibid., 40.

Cross Posted at MandM

Euthyphro’s Problem

In Plato’s Dialogue Euthyphro there appears a problem often put to the defender of Divine Command Theory of Ethics. Socrates, a character hoping for instruction from Euthyphro, asks, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods” Stated in today’s vocabulary the problem is stated in the following way by Dr. Louise Antony of the University of Massachusetts:

Are morally good actions morally good simply in virtue of the fact that God favours them? Or does God favour them because they are, independent of his favouring them, morally good?

If the former, supposedly this means that the things we think of as evil could well have been good. Also it means those things we think of as always being evil could become good if God’s will ever changes. This makes the good appear to be arbitrary, which for many is counter-intuitive (for a good that is arbitrary cannot be objective). If the latter, then God is subjugated by some independent thing outside of himself. This would make God not the ultimate being, and that is something most adherents to Divine Command Theory of ethics would want to avoid affirming. As neither option appeals to Divine Command Theorists it is thought that ethics based on religion or moral authority such as God fails.

The problem with the Euthyphro problem is it creates an invalid either/or situation. The argument comes in the following form.[*]

1) P v Q (P or Q)
2) ¬Q (not Q)
(D.S.) 3) P (Therefore, P)

In a true dilemma there are only two options available in the first premise, and this ensures that the conclusion is necessary and inescapable. To reach a sound** conclusion one has to show either (1) that P and Q are in some way contradictory to each other, or else (2) add a premise which states that P and Q are the only two options. The absence of at least one of the above criteria renders the argument logically unsound. Because the Euthyphro argument does not meet the above conditions, it is a false dilemma. When you have a false dilemma, it is always possible with a little ingenuity to find a third option (i.e. P or Q or R). And even the possibility of a third option is enough to break apart the horns of the dilemma.

What is that third option? Here, Christians typically suggest that God is the paradigm of goodness. That is, God’s nature is Plato’s the Good. Put simply, that which is good is that which reflects the nature of God.

Therefore, God’s being is the fount from which his commands flow, and these constitute our moral duties. What is good then is not independent of God, and neither is it arbitrary. To pretend that God could choose any horrible idea and make that good is to assign a truth value to a proposition with an impossible antecedent. That’s like asking, if a circle had four sides would its area be the square of one its sides? God’s benevolence is an essential attribute of his being. That is like saying three-sidedness is an essential attribute of a triangle.

One might disagree and state that this option is not actually the case, despite the strong case that can be made for it from the biblical data about God. But so long as this option is even possible, it shows that the Euthyphro argument creates a false dilemma, and is therefore logically invalid.

This third option has inspired what we’ll call the meta-Euthyphro problem. The proponent of this argument asks;

Is God’s nature morally good simply in virtue of the fact that it is God’s? Or is God’s nature morally good because it conforms to an independently given standard of moral goodness? If the former, then God’s nature could be unjust and malicious, and our intuitions inform us that injustice and maliciousness could never be good. If it is the latter and God’s nature is good because it is just and loving, then justice and loving-kindness are the ultimate and not God.

In response, this meta-Euthyphro argument misunderstands what it is to be the paradigm of goodness. If injustice and maliciousness are always evil then God, as the paradigm of goodness, must necessarily not be unjust and malicious. So to say God could be unjust and malicious is logically contradictory – just like saying a married man could also be bachelor at the same time.

Hence, the answer to the meta-Euthyphro argument is – Yes, the first option: God’s nature is morally good simply in virtue of the fact that it is God’s. But that particular criticism of this option fails.

* A disjunctive syllogism
** For an argument to be sound it must have a true premises and a conclusion which correctly flows from its premises.

Response to the SaviorOfLogic

SaviorOfLogic has replied to a comment on YouTube video Atheists should not criticize Hitler:

If whatever God commanded be good, then murder (assuming an Abrahamic belief system) is always evil, and should be punishde by death, but what if I went back in time and killed Hitler, is that good or evil? What if God forbid’s murder, but then commands you to kill (such as in the promised land), is killing or not killing them the moral action?

My reasoning is that almost every single action can be both good and evil, depending on the circumstances, and we don’t need a deity to tell us that.

ThinkingMatters  (that’s me) says

Hello, SaviorOfLogic. You have some good questions here which I am interested in answering them. But the format here on YouTube is not so good for questions such as these, and I do not think I can do them justice in the short time I have available now. Please check talk.thinkingmatter.org.nz where I’ll blog on this topic, hopefully in the next week.

-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-_-

My promised response follows…

I think you might want to be talking about the Mosaic Law (not the “Abrahamic belief system”), which states “Thou shalt not murder.” 

You start with the word “If,” and as I already mentioned in my response UppruniTegundanna (though you may have missed it due the lengthy comment section), that the “if…” is something I am not willing to grant. 

Here is what I had to say concerning the Euthyphro Dilemma. 

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —- — — — — — — — — — — —  

ThinkingMatters  (that’s me) says

The ethics developed on the theism finds a transcendent ground in God. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma, that is to say those are not the only options. The third option that splits the arguments horns is that God is the standard. Rather than the good being good because God said so – thus arbitrary, or the good being above God – thus God is not the ultimate, the good flows from his nature – the good is good because God is good.

UppruniTegundanna responds

If I accept the third option, can I say that it is in fact a false trilemma, and that there is an additional option that we are being deceived into our beliefs about what is good or not by an evil force? 

ThinkingMatters  (that’s me) responds

As for the third option – you could say that it is a false trilemma because there are more than three options – but all I need to do is split the horns of the dilemma. I don’t even need to argue that the third option is true, it just needs to be an option. But I do think that the third option is plausibly true – we have for instance biblical grounds for declaring it true, and we have good philosophical grounds as well, as God is defined as the ultimate being and morality is a perfection.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —- — — — — — — — — — — —

What if God forbid’s murder, but then commands you to kill…

I don’t equate murder with killing. Killing is any action performed that results in the loss of a life. Murder is killing with that added moral component that makes the action wrong.

The distinction between the two is very interesting I think, but for now let us not get distracted by it.

is killing or not killing them the moral action?

Because I think that our moral duties come from God’s commands and flow directly from his nature, not killing them would be immoral. Whereas killing them in the absence of God’s command would be immoral. I know at this point my answer seems incredible to you, so before I go on, its worth pointing out that the consistent atheist has to adopt a far more radical position. 

He or she must deny there is such as thing as evil, good, and objective right and wrong. Should and shouldn’t should be wiped from their dictionary. Morals become the equivalent of personal preference akin to which way I choose to part my hair in the morning – totally subjective and amoral. On atheism ethics is as philosopher Dr. Michael Ruse says is “illusory.”

In the absence of a deity, in order to discourse with meaning on ethics, you need to give a basis for how we determine what is right and wrong, good and evil. 

I hold to Divine Command Theory. This is the theory that says our moral duties are given by the decrees of God.

(such as in the promised land)

The questions I think you are really asking are; (1) How can you consider the conquest of Caanan moral? (2) Is the God who commanded them to kill Himself moral?

C.S.Lewis said when critiquing a worldview you have to do your best to step inside that worldview and assess it from the inside, or run the risk of arguing against a straw man. So step inside…

First observation is that both these questions assume the Bible is factually accurate. So its not really a critique from the outside, but an internal matter of consistency. Therefore, at most what is at stake is the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy – not the existence of God, and not even the moral perfection of God.

As I’ve distinguished between the act of murder and killing, mush of the force of (2) is already gone. Question (1) remains.

The conquest of Caanan comes set against the backdrop of Sodom and Gomorra. Abraham has a discussion where God tells him that he is going to destroy these two cities. Like a middle-eastern bargain hunter, Abraham says “will you still destroy the city if a hundred righteous people live there?” God says “No, I will not.” Abraham comes back again and again, getting lower and lower, and always receives the same answer – “No, I will not.” Eventually Abraham dare not go any lower. 

The LORD does indeed rescue Lot, Abraham’s nephew, from Sodom before it is destroyed. The implication is that God would not judge a whole city if there was one righteous person who lived there. So we see the great holiness of God, the great length he will go to deliver those who seek to obey him, and judgement of a wicked and perverse people. 

The fire and brimstone that reigned down on those two cities represented God’s judgement on them. As the supreme, infinitely holy being who first gave them life, God has every right to take their lives, and is under no obligation to prolong their life. Also as an omniscient being he is also capable of knowing the amount of evil that would have resulted had he not judged them in this way. It is also possible that God could have known there were no circumstances in which they would have repented if given the opportunity. 

It is around this time that Abraham receives a promise that the land will be his inheritance for descendants. But does God send them in immediately. The answer is no. He stalls over four hundred years to wait for “their iniquity is not yet full.”

Fast forward to Israel exiting Egypt and the desert wandering: promised the land but unable to take possession of it, waiting for God’s command to come. When it does the command says kill every person you find there. You and I in modern times thinks that’s pretty harsh, but remember we are talking about God giving the command. Our moral duties come from his command and perfectly reflect his nature, which is pure and holy, perfect in morals and in judgement. So the command represents God’s judgement upon that nation, and this time instead of fire and brimstone, the instruments of His judgement are the Israelites. 

Because God is not accountable to anyone or any over arching principle called “good” he literally cannot sin, as his own commands that flow from his perfect nature are not binding on him. We however, as his creations, are recipients of those commands and we are to be held responsible for breaking them and, if he wishes it, rewarded for obeying them. 

It must be remembered that the Canaanites were not innocent victims. With the background context of Sodom and Gomorra fresh in our mind, there was probably not one righteous person among them, accept Rahab and her family who were rescued much like Lot. The people who lived in Caanan were reprobates and full of all types of wickedness and debauchery. Temple prostitution was one of things that were common practice, as well as child sacrifice. 

One reason God may have given this command was He knew that if these tribes and nations had been allowed to continue to live there would have greater evil as a result. An omniscient being is in the perfect position to decide that the lives of a few thousand now is better than the lives of untold millions later. 

Also, on the Christian view, the children who were killed in the conquest of Canaan would go to heaven, whereas had they been allowed to live and grow up they might have been placed in circumstances where he knew they would have rejected him. So actually when God decreed that even the children should be killed, He was doing them a favour. And when it comes to the salvation of the adults, it is at least possible that God knew that there was not any possible set of circumstances that would elicit from those people true repentance and salvation. 

One reason the Bible gives for God giving this command is so the Israelites would understand the importance of being set apart from the nations that surrounded them. God knew that if these people were not exterminated then Israel would latter fall into apostasy. And if you follow through in the history of Israel, that is exactly what did happen. The very people that Israel spared were the people that latter led them into idolatry and sin. Later God used those same people to discipline Israel in turn to keep them a separate and holy nation. 

The conquest of Caanan helped to shape Israel’s national identity. It is entirely plausible that God understood that an immeasurable good would result from their separated and unique identity. And in the gospels we see that God was right, for from Israel there came a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who built a bridge between sinful man and a holy God, that the whole world can be reconciled Him. A good that would not have been possible had Israel been just another heathen culture. 

So we have see that given God’s moral greatness and superlative attributes that Christian monotheism is internally consistent and logically on sound ground. Whereas atheism is not logically sound if one wishes to discourse on ethics with real meaning, and is internally inconsistent as it is completely unliveable. Based on all the above, God is not only in the very centre of how we determine what is moral, but He gives us the only logical ground to affirm that both good and evil exist. 

I put it to you, who is the more reasonable? The one who sees the atrocities of Hitler’s Nazi regime and says “I don’t like it, but I can’t say it’s wrong because my atheism won’t allow me to,” or the one who says “This was really evil.” 

Thank God that He is the true “Saviour of logic.” :-)

Atheists Should Not Criticise Hitler

The following is a conversation taken from http://www.youtube.com/comment_servlet?all_comments&v=YDLoxbegKGo 

It was in part a response to Rob’s excellent video entitled; 

Atheists should not criticize Hitler

Rob says:

“My video above was a reply to another video that had about 1,000,000 hits, thus has gathered many hits on the back of that one… Stats: almost 2000 views to date and almost 250 comments :-)”

That was as of 20 November, 2008. You can expect the conversation to continue. As the conversation was conducted on YouTube it may seem a little non-linear, but I have corrected the order of a few comments so reflects more accurately the dialogue we did have.

Rob is “apologeticsNZ”

Atheist objector “UppruniTegundanna”

I enter the conversation as “ThinkingMatters”

 

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apologeticsnz (16 hours ago)

It seems most people on this comment thread do not think at all! That aside, please tell me HOW you KNOW what right and wrong are?

UppruniTegundanna (1 week ago) Show Hide

Surely you recognise how self-serving your analysis of human morality is: i.e. you have constructed the argument specifically to bolster the moral rectitude of your faith, and undermine that of atheists. The thing is, there is no atheist morality – instead there is human morality. The problem I see in your argument is a denial of one of our more noble attributes: that is the capacity to engage in moral reasoning.

I would describe my morality as a combination of utilitarian principles (i.e. the promotion of happiness, health and prosperity of humans), a faithful adherence to a social contract (the Golden Rule) and an understanding of cause an effect. I don’t have one book, rather I have the entirety of human literature, philosophy, music and art to inspire me to be a good human being.

apologeticsnz (16 hours ago) 

You are question begging. How do you KNOW what a “good” book is? Mein Kampf is a book. Is it good? How do you know? How do you KNOW the golden rule is a good thing?

UppruniTegundanna (14 hours ago) Show Hide

My criterion is as follows: if a principle is a positive force for social cohesion, then I consider it good. How presumptuous of me! Please, don’t allow yourself to fall into abject nihilism in your attempt to label non-believers as incapable of positive morality. The promotion of health, happiness and prosperity is a good thing, whatever your beliefs. This may involve following teachings from a holy book, or devising new principles to deal with new situations.

As for Mein Kampf, I haven’t read the book, and I doubt I ever will – it just isn’t on my reading list! But even if I did read it, I imagine it would tell me more about what can happen to a disordered mind than anything about positive morality. It shouldn’t upset your faith to accept that non-believers can see the good and bad in things by applying their rational minds – after all, don’t you think that the “moral law is written in the hearts of all men” (paraphrase from Romans 2:14-15)?

apologeticsnz (13 hours ago) 

Hey, finally an intelligent answer!

Yes indeed, the moral law is on ALL our hearts. But in that case, why is there any evil in the world?

Biblically, the heart and mind are ‘fallen’. That is, they are perpetually driving toward sin. It is like a lust within us, thus the Apostle Paul writes of knowing what is right but desiring to do what is wrong!!! He referred to this as a war in his members e.g. a conflict between his fallen heart & mind, & the “new man”, born again “in Christ”.

Make sense?

UppruniTegundanna (13 hours ago) Show Hide

Firstly I want to say that I am enjoying this dialogue with you, despite our differences in belief system, it is important to pick one another’s brains, so to speak. While I wouldn’t use the word “fallen”, I agree with you that humans have a capacity for destructive behaviour. Why does this happen? My explanation is that humans have positive and negative impulses in almost equal measure, especially when it comes to coexisting in a society that is at odds with our “natural” existence.

By “natural” I am referring the fact that we originally existed in bands of 200 or so people, and our loyalty was primarily directed towards that kin group. As societies have grown and become more complex, we have had to adjust our interactions to become more inclusive of others in order to establish social cohesion – it is a difficult balance to maintain, but it is not impossible as long as people can differentiate between behaviour that promotes social cohesion versus behaviour that upsets it.

UppruniTegundanna (1 week ago) Show Hide

Knowing that we have gone from creatures who got by with no more than sticks, stones and fire to the current state of affairs, in which we have colonised every corner of the globe, made preliminary reconnaissance of all the major orbs in our solar system, broken matter down to its infintessimally small component parts and built machines that would, to our brave ancestors, seem like pure magic, is enough to make me wish and act in a way that is for the best for our noble species.

apologeticsnz (13 hours ago)

Noble species? According to darwinism, we are just a complex arrangement of atoms and molecules. We’re born, we die. And that is it. No ultimate meaning. Just a long heat death in an ever expanding universe.

UppruniTegundanna (12 hours ago) Show Hide

You are insisting that I cannot place a value judgement on anything because I accept evolution. This is wrong. We are an arrangement of atoms; this is true whether or not a god exists – but what an arrangement! Are you inspired by the achievements of man? Can I be too? Of course I can! I want the best for humanity but, sadly for you, I do not believe that this will be achieved merely by following the decrees of a holy text. If we want to coexist peacefully, we need to think for ourselves…

… and make judgements on the best way to behave based on the practical outcome of the behaviour. Do lying, stealing, murdering and raping help us coexist peacefully? No. By the way, doesn’t it seem odd that “Thou shalt not rape” is not part of the decalogue? I consider rape worse than coveting my neighbour’s goods! In fact, desiring what others have seems to be a great accelerant for invention and hard work!

ThinkingMatters (12 hours ago) Show Hide

I think you’re confused on one of the finer points of the argument. The point is not that atheists cannot discern or know what is right and wrong. The point is that an atheist cannot be consistent with their view if they want to affirm the existence of objective morals. The ethic you have created for yourself is like a web suspended on nothing. In the end you cannot affirm why and if your own view is good or wrong. You end up with subjectivism which is insufficient if you want to condemn Hitler.

UppruniTegundanna (11 hours ago) Show Hide

Point taken, although I would say that the difference between us is that you are looking for a moral framework that, once established, can be adhered to at all times, in all situations, whereas I think that morality should be goal-oriented, i.e. that we should behave in a way that facilitates a desired outcome – in my case, and the case of most people I would assume, greater and more peaceful coexistence between humans.

ThinkingMatters (11 hours ago) Show Hide

The problem you have just confirmed is that you cannot condemn Hitler for his atrocious actions. He too created an ethic that was goal-oriented, namely extermination of the Jews. He too presumably was acting to better the lot of humanity and future coexistence with people. His views on what constituted human was different, and how to achieve his ends were different than ours would be, but how do you affirm that he was really wrong?

Without a transcendent ground to morality ethics becomes discourse without meaning.

UppruniTegundanna (11 hours ago) Show Hide

Well, when you consider the enormous contribution to science, art and culture that the Jews have made in the 20th century, I think you can in fact say that Hitler was objectively wrong in thinking that his actions were for the greater good (which he DID think) – incidentally, I might not be here if he had succeeded, as my grandmother was a Ukrainian Jew. The fact that different people can have different goals, does not mean that all those goals are equal…

… It is up to people of good conscience, who do not allow their worldviews to be tainted by hatred and prejudice, to stand up to people who do promote vicious regimes, whether they are religious or not. It is not just the people who commit evils acts who are dangerous, but also the people who do nothing that are dangerous. I think you and I can stand together and agree on that point.

ThinkingMatters (10 hours ago) Show Hide

I certainly can agree with you there. But it seems you are content to live inconsistently with your view. How is it you can say such and such is evil? It seems you do, when it comes down to it, agree that objective morals do exist.

ThinkingMatters (10 hours ago) Show Hide

That is just knocking the question back one step. Why is the Jewish contribution to science, art and culture worthwhile on atheism?

UppruniTegundanna (10 hours ago) Show Hide

I don’t quite understand the question? Are you asking why I, as an atheist, would care about the Jewish contribution to culture? It is I, as a human, who cares about that. I am moved by literature and art, filled with admiration for people who have contributed to science, thus improving the quality of our lives, and disgusted by those who want to destroy both, not as an atheist, but as a human.

ThinkingMatters (10 hours ago) Show Hide

Thus there is a disconnect. Your human desires, moral and aesthetic intuitions do not conform with your philosophical atheism. For on atheism, these things are not anything worthwhile. Why should science that improves human life be regarded as a worthy endeavour? After all a human on atheism is only a sack of chemicals. Why should art that improves the quality of life be of any significance in an atheistic universe?…

… On atheism we live in a universe indifferent to our survival and comfort. Again its the web suspended on nothing.

UppruniTegundanna (9 hours ago) Show Hide

The mistake you are making is thinking that atheism informs my worldview to the same extent that Christianity informs the worldview of a Christian. It is simply an answer to the question of the existence of a god. All value judgements have to be derived from a different source, which I have rather glibly described as “human”. What I mean is that things have a value based on their positive impact on humanity. You seem determined to accuse me of nihilism, and that simply isn’t the case!

ThinkingMatters (9 hours ago) Show Hide

You comment here is interesting. You make “positive impact on humanity” the standard for morals. Thus you provide a transcendent ground to base your ethics but fail to show how it is not ad hoc. You fail to define “positive” without arguing in a circle and fail to answer “why” on atheism we can declare with real meaning something as right or wrong. You also admit you do not integrate your atheism with your moral intuitions – that last is a good thing indeed! …

You say: “I treat morality as something that can be discussed and evaluated, can be subject to improvement and modification …, and first and foremost, as something that is of utmost importance for human wellbeing. How is that inconsistent?”

It is inconsistent because you have not integrated your atheism with your moral intuitions. On atheism morality is not objective, yet you consistently refer above and beyond yourself, on this blog and in life with objective moral statements

ThinkingMatters (9 hours ago) Show Hide

This has been a great discussion and I am about to turn in. It’s late here in NZ. With your permission I’d like to copy and paste this to a blog at talk.thinkingmatters 

I think it will be of great interest to people. 

Sorry I’m turning in. :-(

UppruniTegundanna (9 hours ago) Show Hide

I have no trouble admitting that I do not integrate my atheism into my moral intuitions – I don’t see any need to. To go back to the old argument that atheists make about other metaphysical beliefs, I don’t incorporate my disagreement with astrology into my moral intuitions either! Anyway, don’t want to ramble too much while you are trying to turn in. Speak again another time perhaps!

Sorry, I didn’t see that you had asked permission to copy and paste the discussion. Of course you may! I hope it comes out sounding coherent, as we were jumping all over the place answering one another’s questions, so it may have lost it’s linear narrative a bit.

 

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The following is a conversation with the same person conducted simultaneously with the one above on the same topics. 

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apologeticsnz (13 hours ago) 

“The promotion of health, happiness and prosperity is a good thing, whatever your beliefs.”

Why?

UppruniTegundanna (13 hours ago) Show Hide

You could potentially ask “why” to any explanation I give ad infinitum, but rather than show that I have no grounds for my moral principles, it shows that you are willing to embrace nihilism as a tactic for undermining my assertions. I prefer food that tastes nice to food that tastes bad – similarly, I prefer a happy life for myself and others to an unhappy one. It is possible to behave in a way that promotes that. I am having trouble understanding how you can’t accept that as a valid worldview.

ThinkingMatters (11 hours ago) Show Hide

You’re actually mostly correct – we could ask “why?” ad infinitum. Morals on atheism are comparable to the preference of taste. They are subjective and ultimately arbitrary. Where the trouble lies is in understanding your worldview as valid is it does not conform to our moral intuitions – is extermination of the Jews just personal preference or is it really objectively wrong. How about surgical experimentation on live Jewish babies? Is that morally equivalent to the taste of vanilla over chocolate?

And if you think that those things are wrong and want to be consistent with your view, and if you want your answer to have real meaning, you have to find an answer to the question “why?” that isn’t arbitrary or ad hoc, and isn’t unjustified specieism.

UppruniTegundanna (11 hours ago) Show Hide

Well, I could ask “why” to the answer “because of God’s word”, since that raises the slightly different question commonly referred to as the Euthyphro Dilemma – is something good because God says so, or is God affirming something that is true anyway? I do in fact think that a certain amount of subjectivity exists in people’s conception of morality, but rather than absolve us of responsibility for our actions and those of others, as you seem to think…

… I think that this intensifies the responsibility that we all have to consider our actions and moral beliefs carefully, strip them of fallacious thinking and prejudice, to ensure the best possible outcome. This is difficult, and made all the more difficult since we, as humans, have negative impulses that we have to overcome.

ThinkingMatters (10 hours ago) Show Hide

I could ask “why” to the answer “because of God’s word”

The ethics developed on the theism finds a transcendent ground in God. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma, that is to say those are not the only options. The third option that splits the arguments horns is that God is the standard. Rather than the good being good because God said so – thus arbitrary, or the good being above God – thus God is not the ultimate, the good flows from his nature – the good is good because God is good.

I don’t think we are absolved from our actions because we perceive morals subjectively. I think if someone were to randomly punch me on the nose without provocation that would be wrong, not just subjectively but objectively as well. I do think we have to think carefully about our moral beliefs and strip them of fallacious thinking. Which is why I come back to you, how can you say that the dude that conks you on the nose without provocation is wrong?

After all, you are yet to answer “why” on atheism you can declare with real meaning that something is right or wrong, without giving an answer that isn’t arbitrary, ad hoc, and succumbing to unjustified specieism.

UppruniTegundanna (10 hours ago) Show Hide

I think it is going to be hard, maybe impossible, for me to provide you with an answer to the moral question that you find satisfactory if I do not incorporate God into it, just as I am dissatisfied with answers to scientific questions that do incorporate God. We may lose the notion that morality is (in some cases literally) carved in stone, but we gain the opportunity to discuss, evaluate and modify, if necessary, our moral beliefs as we encounter new situations, which I take as a good thing.

ThinkingMatters (9 hours ago) Show Hide

I think it will be impossible. You either have to be content living inconsistently with your view and know your ethics is ad hoc, or accept that morals are objective.

UppruniTegundanna (9 hours ago) Show Hide

I have always liked the quote by Aristotle: “it is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it”. In the spirit of that quote, let’s imagine that I am correct in my disbelief: am I acting inconsistently? I treat morality as something that can be discussed and evaluated, can be subject to improvement and modification to deal with new situations, and first and foremost, as something that is of utmost importance for human wellbeing. How is that inconsistent?

If I accept the third option [to the Euthyphro dilemma], can I say that it is in fact a false trilemma, and that there is an additional option that we are being deceived into our beliefs about what is good or not by an evil force? As for being conked on the nose, many people would automatically react by retaliating and a fight would ensue – we benefit from maintaining an orderly society and creating disorder does us a disservice. Hopefully you aren’t going to ask me why an orderly society is better than a disorderly one!

ThinkingMatters (10 hours ago) Show Hide

That’s exactly what I was going to ask :-) You see how you end up with subjective morality if you fail to give a transcendent ground for your moral intuitions? When an injustice, like a bloody nose, or more seriously a genocide like Hitler’s, is done to you everything within you screams this was wrong, it was Wrong, it was WRONG. Then you’re confronted with the reality that morals are objective.

As for the third option [in the Euthyphro dilemma] – you could say that it is a false trilemma because there are more than three options – but all I need to do is split the horns of the dilemma. I don’t even need to argue that the third option is true, it just needs to be an option. But I do think that the third option is plausibly true – we have for instance biblical grounds for declaring it true, and we have good philosophical grounds as well, as God is defined as the ultimate being and morality is a perfection.

UppruniTegundanna (9 hours ago) Show Hide

I have a touch of the flu at the moment, which feels quite nasty at times (bloody British weather!) Do you think I have no rational basis for wanting to feel better than I do now? Because your line of questioning suggests that I couldn’t differentiate between being struck down by a nasty disease and feeling fit as a fiddle. Same goes with societal order: order improves people’s quality of life, disorder decreases it.

ThinkingMatters (8 hours ago) Show Hide

On the contrary, I do think you can differentiate between what is a social good and what is a social evil, just like you can differentiate between a biological evil [the flu] and a biological good [being healthy]. The thing your not grasping is this: we know the flu is bad because we know what it’s like when the body is running right – we have a rational basis. When it comes to morals though, we know what’s bad because we know what’s right – but you’ve no rational basis for that.

:-) Thanks for the conversation.