Christopher Hitchens, Atheism, and Evil

Douglas Wilson, writing at The Gospel Coalition, discusses Christopher Hitchen’s recent Slate article on 9/11:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”none” text_align=””]All this is Hitchens doing what Hitchens does best, and he does it for most of his article. And then, fulfilling the promise of the title (“Simply Evil”), he veers into incoherence at the very end when he only had about two column inches to go. It was like watching a bicycling Tour de Something rider, 50 yards ahead of the nearest competitor, anticipate the finish line by raising both hands above his head, at which point he triumphantly bites it.

“The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called ‘evil.’”

Evil? Since the 2009 publication of God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens has spent a great deal of energy trying to persuade all of us that the idea of God is a false and pernicious one. But now he ups and calls these bad guys . . . evil. Given the premises, what might the definition of that be? Who determines what is evil and why? By what standard? But there may be a wiggle-room word in there. Hitchens only said they deserve to be called evil. But that generates the same questions. By whom? And whoever that person is, how did he wind up in charge of our moral lexicon?

We have to grow up, Hitchens has said. We have to reject outmoded concepts. We have to get rid of the idea that there is a God in heaven, telling us the difference between right and wrong. But if these things be true, then there are other things that follow. For some reason, Hitchens is willing to affirm the premises but will not own any of the obvious conclusions. You cannot throw away your suitcase at the beginning of your journey, and then, as you are nearing the end of the trip, pull out all the things that you packed in it. There may be shrewd ways of avoiding baggage handling fees, but that’s not one of them.

If there is no God, then Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have no God. But if they have no God, then it follows that Hitchens is not their god either. And if Hitchens is not their god, why should they care what he calls them? There is no god, and Hitchens is not his prophet.

Evil? Unless such men are treated as evil men, there is no justice. And if there is no actual justice (not paper justice, not name-calling justice, but actual justice), then there really is no such thing as evil. If there is no such thing as final justice, then how can we manage to define the concept of injustice? Hitchens wants to call them evil after they are largely out of ear shot. Let us all agree to call Stalin evil. On Hitchens’s account of things, does Stalin care?

Hitchens may counter that he fully intends to fight them. He fully intends to treat them as evil, and his article was a call to arms. All right then. Is evil then determined by who wins that fight? Does this fight have a referee? Is there a rulebook? Who wrote it?”[/pk_box]

And his conclusion:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”none” text_align=””]I for one am glad that Hitchens wants to repudiate the big lies. I am glad that he stands against vicious totalitarian ideas. Thus far I can applaud him. But in order to stand against anything, however obviously bad it is, you must have something to stand on.[/pk_box]

Read the whole thing here.

Moral Truth Matters

“Obviously the project of moral persuasion is very difficult — but it strikes me as especially difficult if you can’t figure out in what sense anyone could ever be right and wrong about questions of morality or about questions of human values . . .

There are impediments . . . the main one being that most right-thinking, well-educated, and well-intentioned people — certainly most scientists and public intellectuals, and I would guess, most journalists — have been convinced that something in the last 200 years of intellectual progress has made it impossible to actually speak about “moral truth.” Not because human experience is so difficult to study or the brain too complex, but because there is thought to be no intellectual basis from which to say that anyone is ever right or wrong about questions of good and evil.

My aim is to undermine this assumption, which is now the received opinion in science and philosophy. I think it is based on several fallacies and double standards and, frankly, on some bad philosophy. The first thing I should point out is that, apart from being untrue, this view has consequences.

In 1947, when the United Nations was attempting to formulate a universal declaration of human rights, the American Anthropological Association stepped forward and said, it can’t be done. This would be to merely foist one provincial notion of human rights on the rest of humanity. Any notion of human rights is the product of culture, and declaring a universal conception of human rights is an intellectually illegitimate thing to do. This was the best our social sciences could do with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking.

But, of course, it has long been obvious that we need to converge, as a global civilization, in our beliefs about how we should treat one another. For this, we need some universal conception of right and wrong. So in addition to just not being true, I think skepticism about moral truth actually has consequences that we really should worry about.”

Sam Harris at the Edge Conference: “The New Science of Morality”

If you’re living in Auckland, don’t forget our event next week with Glenn Peoples addressing Sam Harris’ claims about science and morality.

What Would Jesus Say to a Relativist?

In this sermon at Castle Pines Community Church, Douglas Groothius offers a useful overview of religious and moral relativism. He talks about Jesus as a thinker and a model for us in communicating truth and approaching intellectual problems. Groothius shows the importance of apologetics, and valuing the Christian worldview as true in both our own Christian walk and in talking with unbelievers.

What Would Jesus Say to a Relativist? – Douglas Groothius

(Original file is found here)

Groothius is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and blogs at The Constructive Curmudgeon.

Is God the Best Explanation for Moral Values? The McDowell-Corbett Debate

On February 26 at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, Sean McDowell and Jim Corbett squared off to debate the role of God in morality. McDowell is the son of Josh McDowell and a Christian author in his own right, while Corbett is a Capistrano Valley High School instructor.

McDowell defended two contentions on the night:

1. If God does not exist, we do not have a solid foundation for moral values.
2. If God does exist, we do have a solid foundation for moral values.

He also argued that in order for a moral system to be adequate, it must satisfy three criteria:

1. Any adequate moral system must have a transcendent standard beyond human nature.
2. Any adequate moral system must account for free will.
3. Any adequate moral system must account for what makes humans special.

Here is the video from the debate:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Or if you prefer the audio, Brian at Apologetics315 has posted the mp3.

There’s been several reactions to the debate online. Luke of  Common Sense Atheism says:  “When will atheists stop embarrassing themselves in debate? This shows the problem with atheists believing they are, by default, more rational than believers. Atheists don’t think they need to study the relevant subjects, or pay attention to the logic of the Christian’s position. Instead, they just wander in and spout some irrelevant points about the Crusades and religious disagreement. Meanwhile, the Christian can put forth whatever argument he wants – whether it’s a good argument or not – because the Christian will clearly explain why the atheist’s arguments fail, but the atheist will not clearly explain why the Christian position fails. Thus the audience leaves believing the Christian has won. And basically, he has.”

Here’s a few other links to further commentary:

Wintery Knight: Sean McDowell debates James Corbett on whether morality is grounded by atheism.

Incipit Vita Nova: Morality in the Absence of Religion

Sean McDowell: Reflections on My Recent Debate

(H/T: Apologetic Junkie)

The First Last Great Christmas Movie

If there is one subject or theme that filmmakers repeatedly fumble, it is Christmas. For every good Christmas film there is a Bad Santa, Elf, or The Santa Clause. Yet, for a generation that prefers cynicism over sentimentality and values objects and people only for what they can contribute to pleasure, Christmas will always be misunderstood. The message of contemporary Christmas film, Love Actually, characterizes this predicament tellingly: ‘love actually is all around’, is its catchcry. Love, invisible and irresistible, can take any form. It is has no anchor, no zipcode in moral reality. But if love is everything, then it is nothing. When the objective realm has been supplanted by subjectivity, it is no wonder that moral principles evaporate and the heart of Christmas lost.

Joe Carter, over at First Things, gives a good argument for why Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life rightly upends the moral vision of our time and deserves its place as the best Christmas film. It’s a Wonderful Life is the translation of an older myth into a post-World War 2 world. That original story is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the tale of a miser who is given a shot at redemption.  It’s a Wonderful Life features not Scrooge but George Bailey, played by James Stewart, who is contemplating death after a financial crisis and the prospect of impending disgrace.  It takes a vision of a world in which he was never born to make him realise that life is indeed worth living and rediscover the spirit of Christmas. Carter, in comparing the work of Frank Capra to Ayn Rand, says:its_a_wonderful_life

What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in film is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely for his efforts.

Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. In the end, George is saved from ruin but the rest of life remains essentially the same. By December 26 he’ll wake to find that he’s still a frustrated artist scraping out a meager living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. In fact, all that he has gained is recognition of the value of faith, friends, and community and that this is worth more than anything else he might achieve. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.

This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.

You can watch the whole movie online at Google Video.

Is Human Flourishing Good Enough?

“Good and bad are determined by what adds or subtracts to human flourishing.” This is a common retort for those who want to hold that moral values and duties are more that subjective and yet remain natural. If this was the case then morality would be objective as a standard that transcends personal feelings and opinion is provided. The kernel of truth here is that much of morality is for the purpose of preserving the dignity, welfare and richness of human life. However, I submit this foundation is inadequate for the following four reasons.

First, moral truths carry normativeness, that is, they provide a standard that prescribes what “ought” and “ought not” to be. Human flourishing is merely descriptive of what “is” and “is not.” As something that only describes nature, there is no prescription of what ought or ought not to be that arises, and therefore whatever follows does not fit the description of what we know morality is like.

Second, the reduction of a moral property to a natural property is always ultimately unsuccessful. In this case, in order that we might weigh what was right and wrong we have to define how we measure human flourishing. Say for instance we concluded that human flourishing is measured by an increase in the population of the upper class. That would mean that taxing wealthy people at a higher percentage of their income, purely on the basis that they refuse to have large families was right and good. But that doesn’t fit, because that is discriminatory and immoral, but according to the reduction of the moral property to a natural property it was “good” because it would be promoting human flourishing. Further, on this same reduction, forcibly distributing the many children of a lower-class family into many different upper-class family homes to be raised as servants with free food, clothes, warm house, and education would be a so-called “good” because such action promoted human flourishing, but this is also immoral – it is splitting up families to enforce servitude. One can always find immoral and repugnant examples when moral properties are reduced to natural properties, such as human flourishing.

Third, if right and wrong are determined by human flourishing this succumbs to the temptation of speci-ism. Speci-ism is an unjustified bias for ones own species. But what is there to make the human species anything special? One has to justify that position with reasons, and naturalism is inept at doing so. It just asserts it. Why is Richard Dawkins is wrong when he says,

“There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference . . . We are machines for propagating DNA . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being”?

Tell us why the human animal is endowed with special privileges, inherent worth or dignity? Only then can one declare that human flourishing is the determinative factor for what is right and wrong. If naturalism is true then there is nothing really wrong with a man forcible copulating with a woman, for this occurs all the time in nature. Christianity however provides an excellent reason why rape is wrong. It is wrong because it is a violation of something sacred – but how can it be sacred if it is mere matter?[1]

Finally, who determines what human flourishing means? Is it the capitalist or the Marxist? Is it the victim of HIV, or the person who wants to dispose of all HIV sufferers? Certain socio-political movements that have equated good morals with that which promotes human flourishing include Communism, Eugenics, and even Nazi Germany. This is not to impugn the ethical theory with guilt by association. It is to point out that there are radically different ideas on what human flourishing entails. The Nazis, for instance, believed that the extermination and destruction of all Jews, homosexuals, people with black skin, intellectually handy-capped, the infirm, dissenting Christians, and all enemy troops was for the benefit of humanity as a whole. But what is there qualitatively that sets our idea – that this is not an acceptable moral belief – above the moral beliefs of the Nazi’s?

Our moral indignation towards different counter-perspectives provides a powerful reason to think that something else other than human flourishing – though a noble goal – is not the paradigm of goodness. If there is one thing we know when it comes to morality, it is that Hitler and his cronies were objectively wrong. Condemnation of his evil regime is right and good. But from their point of view they were only acting towards the goal of human flourishing, and the brief pain and suffering they wrought in the present was acceptable when compared to the utopia they were helping to ushering in. When we say they were wrong and believe we said something true then we make a value judgment that contradicts the Nazi value judgment, it strongly suggests that there is something else other than human flourishing that adjudicates that judgment. For you cannot found a foundational value judgment with another value judgment.

In summary, human flourishing is not an adequate ground for the objective moral values and duties we clearly perceive. First, moral truths are prescriptive norms and human flourishing does not prescribe what ought and ought not to be, it only describes what is and is not. Second, the reduction of the moral property to a natural property is unsuccessful. Third, it succumbs to the temptation of speci-ism – an unjustified bias for ones own species. Fourth, there is no qualitative way to distinguish different interpretations on what human flourishing entails, and our moral intuitions tell us there obviously is a qualitative difference suggesting that human flourishing is not foundational after all. Therefore, human flourishing is not an adequate foundation to build an ethical theory on.

[1] This reason for the wrongness of rape would be consistent with a divine command theory of ethics, as breaking God’s command would constitute a violation of something sacred.

What's so great about objective morality?

In a post on his blog today, Damian Peterson asks ‘What’s So Great About Objective Morality?’ He asks this as an agnostic who has seen “many non-theists scramble to try to show that they do, in fact, have a basis for objective morality”—but isn’t sure why. As he puts it, he’s “quite happy to believe that there is no great measuring rod in the sky and that all such morals are evolved and subjective.” What’s the problem with this?

Let me try to give a few solid answers to stimulate further discussion.

Defining the terms

I think it’s pretty important at the outset to define the meaning of the words we’re using. Often, people don’t understand these terms as well as they think they do.

Objective refers basically to the condition of being actually real in a way which is independent of any particular human mind. Subjective, on the other hand, refers to the condition of being perceived as real. This can be confusing, because sometimes we need to decide whether our subjective perception is actually of some objective thing, or if it is just “all in our minds”.

Morality is a term used somewhat ambiguously. It can refer to moral duty in a general sense: that is, to the mere fact that we ought to behave in certain ways and not others. More specifically, it can also refer to some or other system of conduct: a set of rules or norms which describes the ways in which we (allegedly) should and should not act.

Under any given system of morality, right refers to the condition of a person’s actions being in accordance with his moral duty; and wrong refers to the condition of his actions being in violation of his moral duty.

But what is moral duty?

Damian suggests that

when people use “wrong” and “right” as opposed to “detrimental” and “beneficial” it actually creates a circular argument for a kind of objective morality because the word “wrong” can be used in both an objective and a subjective sense (i.e. I hit the wrong key on the keyboard vs. abortion is wrong) whereas the word “detrimental” demands that you at least define a goal or framework that is being worked against.

This is a fairly normal approach for non-theists. Superficially, it seems to allow that the words “right” and “wrong” don’t have the sort of power which theists say they have, while at the same time not robbing them of so much power that they become entirely meaningless. If we think of morally “right” as that which is beneficial, and morally “wrong” as detrimental, then we can have a more productive discussion without perhaps unintentionally begging the question in favor of the objective view.

Reciprocal question-begging

A little consideration should show that there’s an obvious problem with this approach. We’re being asked to say “abortion is detrimental”, rather than “abortion is wrong”. But this is really to ask us to abandon our own moral notions, and adopt a kind of moral pragmatism. We’re being asked to stop saying “abortion violates our moral duty”, and start saying “abortion is ultimately impractical”, or perhaps “abortion is destructive”, or “abortion is not socially beneficial” or something like that. We’re being asked to essentially say that something is morally wrong only if it fails to stack up against some practical goal or purpose; and right only if it furthers that goal or purpose. But Christians don’t believe this: we believe that something is wrong only if it violates our duty to God, and right only if it does not. So what the non-theist is implicitly suggesting is that we should abandon our Christian ethics altogether, and accept non-Christian ones instead. Naturally we aren’t going to do that, because we don’t believe morality without God is a sensible concept at all. We’ll point out a number of problems with it:

Problems with non-theistic morality

Firstly, we’re going to highlight the fact that the terms “detrimental” and “beneficial” are very ill-defined. What are the specific practical goals against which any action is being evaluated? Is it social harmony? The greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? Survival of the species? Something else?

Secondly, and more importantly, why are these practical goals the ones which have been chosen? Let’s say that “the greatest happiness for the greater number of people” is the pragmatic goal against which actions are evaluated for rightness or wrongness. This is a fairly common position known generally as utilitarianism. Why does the non-theist believe that we should evaluate actions according to this criteria? It seems very arbitrary. Why can I not make up my own criteria instead? What makes one criteria better than another? In short, why is it right that it is right to act to further the non-theist’s practical goal? His notion of how we should evaluate morality plainly doesn’t pass its own test.

In other words, the non-theist is implicitly assuming some other standard of morality by which we can know that we’re obliged to follow his standard of morality. And that is self-refuting. He’s saying that actions are moral depending on whether they work for or against some practical goal—but when he speaks of actions being “moral”, he’s really saying that we have some kind of duty to act in that way. Conversely, when he speaks of actions being “immoral”, he means that we have a duty to not act in that way. But why do I have a duty to act in a way which furthers some practical goal the atheist has invented? More specifically, since duty is to an authority, to whom is the duty I allegedly have under the atheist’s view? To the atheist himself? Why? He isn’t a moral authority. To society? Again, why? If one person is not a moral authority, then why would a collection of persons be?

What this highlights is that the proposed non-theistic view of morality is really neglecting to answer what morality actually is in the first place. Since questions of morality are questions of duty, a non-theistic view of morality needs to be able to not only say what it is that we have a duty toward, but also show convincingly that we really do have such a duty. This is where non-theistic moral theories really run aground: they cannot provide an adequate account of duty itself.

Possible objections

Damian, or some other non-theist, might object that I am unfairly imposing my theistic requirements on his non-theistic worldview. Christians may believe that a theory of morality is only intelligible given an absolute moral authority—but why should atheists believe the same thing? What’s wrong with having an arbitrary moral authority, like the opinion of the majority of society? If a group of people all agree that we have a duty to do certain things, and a duty to refrain from doing certain other things, then they can impose that belief on society as a whole, and act as a moral authority. In fact, that is generally how society does operate. There’s no need to invoke some higher authority for this. There’s no need to say that God must exist.

This objection fundamentally misses two points:

Counter-objection 1: people do believe in objectively true moral duties

Firstly, and most simply, such a view of morality ignores yet relies upon the common moral intuitions of mankind as a whole. For example, most people will find it impossible to concede that rape could ever be right. The fact that rape is wrong is not a mere matter of convention or opinion, as if it could be changed with sufficient voting power. We just don’t believe that, if enough rapists got together to form their own society, they could possibly be morally justified in declaring rape to be legal and right. Morality is not a matter of legislation. We are very much inclined to say that their society would be morally depraved and in need of correction, not just regardless of the fact that their arbitrary moral authority is opposed to ours, but in fact precisely because it is so opposed. So in reality we don’t actually believe that moral duty is an arbitrary affair, involving duty to whatever authority we happen to have established. On the contrary, we believe that whatever authority we happen to have established is established on the very basis of our strong, non-arbitrary duty to an authority which supersedes our own.

Now, non-theists will say that we have these moral intuitions as a by-product of evolution. We tend to feel a duty toward actions which promote the survival of the group, and against actions which would detract from this cause. But if this is the case then certain moral intuitions we have don’t seem to make sense. Rape will certainly tend to benefit the survival of the group. Yet our very strong moral intuitions are that rape is always wrong.

More importantly, if our belief in the moral abhorrence of rape is a byproduct of evolution, then it is purely arbitrary. It is not as if evolution selected for things which are morally good, and against things which are morally bad. Rather, what is morally good is what evolution, a non-rational physical process, happened to select for; and what is morally bad is what evolution happened to select against. It could have gone the other way—or even if it couldn’t have, we still only believe that rape is evil because a non-intelligent, non-moral biological process occurred in such a way as to produce that belief.

Counter-objection 2: duty is unintelligible without God

Secondly, then, the non-theistic view ignores and yet relies upon an even more fundamental fact: duty is an incoherent concept if it is reduced to something arbitrary or something non-personal. The atheist wants to say that an arbitrary and man-made moral authority is sufficient for a workable system of morality. But he ignores the fact that the authority is not really arbitrary because any man-made authority is based on a prior, shared view of morality in which we feel a moral duty to something not man-made.

When this is pointed out, he then wants to say that this prior, shared view of morality is a result of evolution, such that the duty we feel is not really toward anything—it’s just a result of biological pressures causing us to act in certain ways. But if this is the case, then ultimately our ideas about moral duty are founded on non-duty. It is not sensible to say that we have a duty to evolutionary processes. Duties are things owed, and things owed are to persons. So if our sense of moral duty is a result of evolutionary processes, then it is actually a total fiction. We actually have no duty whatsoever. We aren’t even being intelligible when we talk about “arbitrary moral authorities”, because to talk about such a thing presupposes the notion of duty itself, and the notion of duty is just a result of biological processes. In other words, in a non-theistic worldview, duty is actually the same as non-duty—a contradiction in terms. The non-theistic view reduces to absurdity.

Therefore, when a non-theist says that we should do something, or ought not do some other thing, he is actually contradicting himself. The words “should” and “ought” refer to duty—and duty doesn’t exist in the final analysis of his worldview. It is a term without an actual referent in the real world. It doesn’t refer to anything which resembles what it’s supposed to mean. Yet atheists and agnostics certainly do believe that we have duties. In fact, they know we have duties.

Now, if someone claims to “know” something which is a contradiction in terms, something which isn’t real, we tend to say that person is deluded or insane. Thus, when we carefully work through all the implications of a non-theistic worldview, we find that non-theists, under their own view, are deluded or insane. And that is the problem with subjective morality. This is why “many non-theists scramble to try to show that they do, in fact, have a basis for objective morality”. This is what’s so great about objective morality. A worldview which reduces our plainly recognizable duty to God to insanity is an insane worldview.