January 15, 2009

Moral relativism and tolerance

APOLOGIA
By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, January 15, 2009)

Moral relativism and tolerance

Tolerance is good and intolerance is bad—and if you don’t accept moral relativism, you're promoting intolerance.

The above view is all too prevalent, it seems to me, and deserves some critical engagement.

First, let's get clear on moral relativism (hereafter relativism). Relativism is the theory in ethics that whether an action is right (or wrong) depends essentially on—is relative to—either an individual's feelings ("if it feels right, it's right for you") or culture ("my culture says it's right, so it's right").

To be sure, relativism seems at first glance to promote an attitude of tolerance between people who have different moral views: "You do your thing, and I'll do mine."

Relativism, however, has some terribly serious problems—problems that tend to get ignored.

For example, proponents of relativism usually ignore the fact that if relativism is accepted, then individuals and/or societies that are blatantly intolerant of our moral views must be tolerated.

On the one hand, if we accept the if-it-feels-right-it's-right-for-you version of relativism, then we would have to tolerate the Paul Bernardo/ Karla Homolka rape-murders, Ted Bundy's serial killings, plus Jeffrey Dahmer's molestations and cannibalizations.

After all: Paul's, Karla's, Ted's, and Jeffrey's actions felt right for them.

On the other hand, if we accept the my-culture-says-it's-right-so-it's-right version of relativism, then we would have to tolerate murderous, genocidal regimes such as Hitler's Germany, Idi Amin's Uganda, and Pol Pot's Cambodia.

Moreover, we would have to tolerate cultural practices such as apartheid, suttee (the burning of a live widow on her husband's funeral pyre), and clitoridectomy (the excision of a woman's clitoris so she will not be distracted from her family duties).

Not a pretty picture.

On a more mundane level, defenders of relativism also usually ignore the everyday fact that we are all (rightly) intolerant of at least some things.

For examples: College and university students are intolerant of professors who give failing grades for excellent work; all educators are (or should be) intolerant of student ignorance and cheating on exams; car owners are intolerant of car theft; surgeons are intolerant of cancer; etc.

Clearly, tolerance is not always a good thing, and intolerance is not always a bad thing.

Regent College professor John Stackhouse summarizes the point nicely: "So, we're all intolerant of some things, and we're all tolerant of others. The question is not 'Tolerance or intolerance?' It's 'Tolerance of what? To what end? ...And for what reasons?'"

Rejecting moral relativism, then, is to take a first step toward accepting tolerance properly understood.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.)

P.S. The following is from serial killer Ted Bundy (the fellow in the photo above):

"Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments,’ that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself–what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself–that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring–the strength of character–to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others?’ Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely, you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? In any case, let me assure you, my dear young lady, that there is absolutely no comparison between the pleasure that I might take in eating ham and the pleasure I anticipate in raping and murdering you. That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me–after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self."

Ted Bundy, cited in Louis P. Pojman, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 3rd edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson, 1999), 31-32.

11 comments:

Froggie said...

"Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer?"

That's too easy, Doc. We evolved by preserving our species.

Good people obey our secular laws because they know they are good laws. Some bad people obey the laws because they are afraid of going to jail. Some bad people break them anyway and they couldn't care less what God might think.

By the way, seven of the ten commandments cannot be laws in this country because they would be unconstitutional.

Dale

Dr. V said...

Hi Dale [a.k.a. Froggie],

It’s good to hear from you again. I hope that all is well in Pennsylvania—and congratulations on the election of your new President. Here are my replies, following your comments.

Dale wrote:

"Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer?"

That's too easy, Doc. We evolved by preserving our species.

Hendrik’s reply:

I’m not convinced that it’s as easy as you say. I think that, yes, the value we place on human life would help us evolve (assuming an unguided, wholly naturalistic evolutionary process) by being useful in guiding actions that help preserve us. However, now, once we realize that we have simply evolved (wholly purposelessly, by natural selection acting on genetic mutation) it would seem that we should also realize that standards of right and wrong, i.e., our values, are mere guidelines for the preservation of our group. That is, we should realize that ethics aren’t about an objective good that is deeply real or deeply binding; ethics are merely a set of helpful rules that culture has handed down to us to help us survive. In other words, as the atheist philosopher Michael Ruse puts it, “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction...and any deeper meaning is illusory.” (Michael Ruse, "Evolutionary Theory & Christian Ethics," in The Darwinian Paradigm [London: Routledge, 1989], 269.) And so ethics, it seems to me, could vary from culture to culture, if the principles and values help a group or society, one way or another, to survive.

But things become problematic at this juncture. Enter: the evil regime problem that I mention in my column. That is, we end up having no deeply real good or deeply binding basis for disagreement with groups lead by the likes of Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, etc. After all, they are merely doing what helps them survive. Their values primarily concern their survival, not ours. Enter, too: the evil individual problem that I also mention in my column. That is, we end up having no deeply real good or deeply binding basis for disagreement with the likes of individuals such as Karla Homolka, Ted Bundy, etc. Ethics, it seems, end up being reduced to personal preference and power, and we have no grounds for criticism other than our personal preference and power. Morality reduces to might makes right.

Phillip Johnson has an insightful comment that’s relevant here. (I know that some of my readers will dismiss Johnson because he’s a critic of naturalistic neo-Darwinian theory and he is an intelligent design proponent; but I encourage such readers not to dismiss all of a thinker’s thinking just because they disagree with parts of it.)

Johnson: “[M]any people have made an effort to build ethical systems out of an evolutionary background—one of the things that has evolved is the human need to form societies; societies need rules; we as rational beings can recognize the need for rules. You can even see how certain rules and standards like promise-keeping, for example, or parents caring for children, would enable a tribe to provide better and to do better in competition with other tribes. And so you can get a grounding for ethics in that sense in the evolutionary process itself.”

So far, so good. But Johnson quickly (and rightly) adds the following:

“[T]he problem [with survivalist ethics] is that while promise-keeping can be justified on an evolutionary basis, so equally can genocide, you see, because what genocide just is is the replacement of one gene pool with another. You wipe out the tribe down the way and your gene pool survives....”

(Phillip E. Johnson, Can Science Know the Mind of God? A Lecture at Princeton University, Access Research Network, 1996, videocassette.)

It seems to me that we find genocide and serial killing wrong because we have a deep moral intuition (i.e., moral/rational insight) of the following objective truth: that people have real intrinsic moral worth. And I am very inclined to think that people in general, whether atheist or theist or whatever, can and generally do recognize this worth. (For a defence of these points, see chapter 2 of my PhD dissertation; you can find my dissertation in my “links of a terribly self-centered sort” on the right side of my blog.)

I have found that a couple of my good friends who are atheist/agnostic tend to agree with me on this. We agree that people have real intrinsic moral worth and deserve respect (i.e., shouldn’t be tortured, murdered, raped, etc.); where we differ is in how to explain that worth. We differ on how to account for it, not on that it is the case. I tend to think it’s due to being made in God’s image; my atheist friends disagree.

My friends who are atheists/agnostics and I have a deep philosophical disagreement here, to be sure. But there’s also some very important common ground. I believe that this common ground allows us to work together and respect each other and others as we work to maintain and protect and encourage what’s good and excellent in our world.

Dale wrote:

Good people obey our secular laws because they know they are good laws. Some bad people obey the laws because they are afraid of going to jail. Some bad people break them anyway and they couldn't care less what God might think.

Hendrik’s reply:

I agree with each of your statements. Perhaps we disagree with what makes a law a good one. I think that what makes a law a good law is that it respects the real intrinsic moral worth of each individual by disallowing the state or any other group to trample on the individual, and by disallowing other individuals to trample on each other. Also, good laws should encourage the members of a society to flourish as well as become responsible citizens.

Dale wrote:

By the way, seven of the ten commandments cannot be laws in this country because they would be unconstitutional.

Hendrik’s reply:

That’s interesting. I’m not as familiar with the constitutional situation in the U.S. as I probably should be, so I won’t comment (at least not directly). I will say that I think that a country’s laws should ensure that all people are treated equally under the law and with the respect that each of us deserves as a creature that has real intrinsic moral worth. I think that this logically implies that each of us has the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, insofar as this doesn’t impinge on others’ rights to do the same. (It seems to me that what I've said here fits well with the U.S. Constitution.)

I think that this also means that we should take the responsibility to encourage one another to seek and live in accordance with what’s true and good and excellent, regardless of one’s religion or atheism or whatever. In our age of worldview plurality, I’m very much in favor of a secular political realm, one that encourages people of all religious and non-religious stripes to find a common ground in truth and reality—i.e., a common ground that recognizes and respects the intrinsic moral worth of each human being—and to therein live peaceably. But, I quickly add and emphasize, this should not at all preclude, or pretend to be a default substitute for, the careful search for ultimate truth, whether that truth is religious or atheist or whatever.

Well, Dale, I should stop. I suspect that I may have started to sound a bit “preachy.” Preachy or not, I hope that what I’ve written is reasonable.

With best regards,
Hendrik

Froggie said...

Doc H.,
Thank you for a most well written and well thought out response.

You have raised some very good questions. As a "shade tree" philosopher I would like to respond with a measured response.

I hope to be back to you soon.
/Dale

Dr. V said...

Dale,

Thanks for your kind comments. Philosophizing under a shade tree—that’s definitely how it should be done! If ever I’m in your neck of the woods, I’ll let you know and maybe we can find ourselves a good tree for further philosophical discussion (and maybe we can find some of that barbecued chicken I saw on your blog).

Best regards,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

A few days ago I wrote the following (above):

“I have found that a couple of my good friends who are atheist/agnostic tend to agree … that people have real intrinsic moral worth and deserve respect (i.e., shouldn’t be tortured, murdered, raped, etc.); where we differ is in how to explain that worth. We differ on how to account for it, not on that it is the case. I tend to think it’s due to being made in God’s image; my atheist friends disagree.”

Here is some additional food for thought:

My belief that people are made in God’s image reinforces my intuition (moral-rational insight) that all people have real intrinsic worth. However, the atheist neo-Darwinian view that people are accidents of a purposeless nature seems (to me) to undermine and weaken the intuition (moral-rational insight) that all people have real intrinsic worth. After all, as atheist Michael Ruse argues, “Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction...and any deeper meaning is illusory.” Shouldn’t the atheist neo-Darwinian evolutionary view, then, tend to favor, morally speaking, the fittest and strongest?

Please note: I’m not trying to be disrespectful to anyone by asking the question. I’m just asking the question. It seems to me that it's an important question.

Hendrik

Richard said...

What a great site -- and interesting commentary.

The constitutionality of the ten commandments is a red-herring; the laws applied legally to Israel and morally to the rest of us.

This kind of argument is known as 'presentism'; that is, using 20th century notions of constitutional arrangements to argue the illegality, even immorality, of a theocratic society.

Pvblivs said...

     Our perception of morality is, at its core, an intuitive perception. Christians have a relative morality -- relative to their god. Indeed, the bible tells of wholesale slaughter commanded by its god. This often generates the cop-out "it's not a sin when he does it."
     To axcertain what would be moral in an absolute sense, it is necessary to consider what we would find moral if we had no interest in the particular event. It is also useful to determine how we would feel in each interested position. Then we can develop some useful criteria. Harming others is wrong.

Dr. V said...

Hi Richard,

Thanks for your kind comment about my site and its commentary – it’s nice to get positive feedback. Here is my reply to your comments about the constitutionality of the Ten Commandments.

Richard wrote:

The constitutionality of the ten commandments is a red-herring; the laws applied legally to Israel and morally to the rest of us.

This kind of argument is known as 'presentism'; that is, using 20th century notions of constitutional arrangements to argue the illegality, even immorality, of a theocratic society.

Hendrik’s reply:

Though I believe your comment is a thoughtful one, I think that I will leave the discussion of the question of the U.S. constitutionality of the Ten Commandments to those persons more capable than me. I think that the American philosopher Francis Beckwith probably has some good and important things to say on this topic (the link to his website is on the right of my blog).

But I will say this: My interest has to do with the issue of morality per se, not the social-legal questions surrounding the implementation of moral principles. It seems to me that if we don’t get clarity on morality per se, our answers to the social-legal questions will be unclear too. Please know that by saying this, I certainly don’t intend to belittle the work that is being done (and needs to be done) on answering the latter questions—I do think that the social-legal questions and their answers are important. I suppose that’s why I want to maintain the focus on the issue presented in my column.

With best regards,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

Hello “Pvblivs.” Thanks for your comments. Here are my replies.

Pvblivs wrote:

Our perception of morality is, at its core, an intuitive perception.

Hendrik’s reply:

There seems to be an unnoticed ambiguity here that might be confusing for some readers. Your claim—“Our perception of morality is, at its core, an intuitive perception”—can be understood two ways. First, the claim might be taken as meaning that our perception of morality is wholly subjective, i.e., not just our subjective perceiving but morality too is wholly subjective. Second, the claim might be taken as meaning that the perception, which is a subjective perceiving, is of or about something that isn’t subjective, i.e., our subjective perception is about something that is mind-independent, i.e., the subjective perception has an object that’s real. When I write (above) of a moral-rational intuition of the real intrinsic moral worth of a human being, I’m thinking of the latter sense.

Maybe this will help clarify further. My perception of, say, a logical principle is subjective in the sense that I am a subjective being and the act of perceiving takes place in my subjective self; however, the logical principle itself is something real and independent of my subjective perception. Think of logical principles such as the principle of non-contradiction (nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same sense), the principle of identity (a thing is what it is), the principle of the excluded middle (either something is or it isn’t). Or think of deductively valid argument forms such as modus ponens (if P then Q, P, therefore Q) or modus tollens (if P then Q, not Q, therefore not P) or disjunctive syllogism (either P or Q, not Q, therefore not P). Or think of mathematics. The principles are real, whether I subjectively perceive them or not; but I subjectively perceive them.

So I think torture and rape for fun is wrong in itself, truly, really, objectively. I perceive that something (someone) of intrinsic worth actually gets violated. It’s not merely my feeling or merely my subjective projection, i.e., it’s not me merely not liking it or merely feeling disgust; it’s a perception of something actual and mind-independent plus I don’t like it and I think it’s disgusting.

For more on the objection “Are feelings merely being projected?” see pages 154-156 of my PhD dissertation, a link to which is available on the right. Be sure to read, too, my larger case (in chapter 2) for thinking that human beings have objective moral worth and that we intuit this.

Pvblivs wrote:

Christians have a relative morality -- relative to their god.

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that there may be a couple of senses of “relative” operating here, which should be unpacked for the sake of clarity.

In one sense of “relative”, morals are essentially dependent upon something that isn’t absolute, i.e., something that changes—such as culture or individual preference, as I point out in my column. This is the usual sense of “relative” when we talk of the relativity of morals.

In another sense of “relative”, morals are essentially dependent upon an unchanging true standard of morality. This is not the usual sense of “relative” when we talk of the relativity of morals. This is more like the use of “relative” in Einstein’s theory of relativity, which, if I understand it correctly, holds that the speed of light is constant and so frames of reference are relative to that constant. (If I’m misunderstanding Einstein here, my point is that this second sense of “relative” means essentially dependent on an absolute moral reality.)

So if the Christian God exists, Christians would have a relative morality in sense 2, not sense 1.

Of course, if one doesn’t think that God exists, and so God would be understood to be a cultural or personal invention, then, it seems to me(as I’ve argued in my previous commentary) that, if one doesn’t find a solid grounding for ethics, one should be inclined to think that morals would all be relative in the first sense.

Now—and here is the point of my column on moral relativism—if you end up with morals that are relative in the first sense (i.e., unanchored to something constant and true), then you are back to the problems that I outline in my column. That is, regimes such as those of Hitler, Stalin, and company, and individuals such as Karla Homolka, Ted Bundy and the like, can’t be criticized with anything deeper than individual preference and power. But this, too, ends up in relativism (sense 1).

One might try to find a basis for ethics in (atheistic) evolutionary theory, but this seems to promote a survival-of-the-most-powerful morality.

Pvblivs wrote:

Indeed, the bible tells of wholesale slaughter commanded by its god. This often generates the cop-out "it's not a sin when he does it."

Hendrik’s reply:

Yes, there’s some scary stuff in the Bible. And I readily admit that I don’t always fully understand it. The philosopher Paul Copan has a helpful paper on this kind of stuff, so I won’t repeat what he has written. Take a look at his article “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” (this paper, originally published in the academic journal Philosophia Christi, can be found on Paul Copan’s website the link of which is listed on the right side of my blog). Whether you find Copan’s work helpful or not, it seems to me that the following philosophical point remains: if there is a God and if that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, then that God probably has at least a few morally good reasons to which I’m not privy. In other words, some mystery should be expected on the God hypothesis and so would count in its favor. (In other words again, some intellectual humility is appropriate.)

At this juncture I should point out that I have come to believe that there are some good grounds for reasonably believing that God exists. That’s not to say that I can provide an absolute “proof” for God’s existence (proofs are found only in math, geometry, and formal logic) or that I can defend every biblical doctrine about God; but I think that I can muster some pretty good reasons. I quickly add that I don’t think that the reasons will persuade everyone. But at least they persuade me. The bottom line is that it seems to me that the pros outweigh the cons. Of course, I could be mistaken. (Yes, I have made several mistakes in my life, some of which I regret deeply. But such is life.)

In one or more of the future installments of my column, I will provide some of the reasons for the belief/hope that I have. In the meantime, and regardless of whether people come to agree with me about God, I will do my best to respect those persons with whom I disagree, and I will hope that my doing so might have at least a bit of a ripple effect on others by encouraging civil discussion in spite of deep disagreement.

I sincerely do hope that people come to know the truth about God and to know God, but ultimately, it seems to me, that’s between them and God (or between them and not-God, if God doesn’t exist).

Pvblivs wrote:

To axcertain what would be moral in an absolute sense, it is necessary to consider what we would find moral if we had no interest in the particular event. It is also useful to determine how we would feel in each interested position. Then we can develop some useful criteria. Harming others is wrong.

Hendrik’s reply:

I agree with you 100% that harming others is wrong. So that’s important common ground. However (and probably less importantly), I disagree with your reasoning in getting to this common ground. It just strikes me as deeply odd to say that in order to ascertain an absolute moral standard “it is necessary to consider what we would find moral if we had no interest in the particular event.” It seems to me that by the very nature of morality (especially if we’re talking about “what would be moral in an absolute sense”), what is truly moral simply is that in which we have and ought to have the deepest interest—an interest that over-rides all competing interests. But maybe I’m misunderstanding you here.

Again, I think it’s important to emphasize our common ground: harming others is wrong. In a world in which too many people are in fact harmed, this is a significant step in a good direction.

With best regards,
Hendrik

Pvblivs said...

Dr. V:

     You have used some qualifiers that have no place ("for fun" and "that isn't absolute.") Torture and rape are wrong -- even if commanded by your "unchanging god."
     "It just strikes me as deeply odd to say that in order to ascertain an absolute moral standard 'it is necessary to consider what we would find moral if we had no interest in the particular event.'"
     It's not odd at all. But there are differing definitions for interest, so I may be unclear. Let me use an analogy. If two tribes are fighting over a piece of land, each side has an interest in the conflict. Because of this interest, each side is likely to excuse its own actions and condemn the actions of the opposing tribe. Someone completely outside, with no relations to either tribe, has no interest. He will not excuse an act committed by one tribe that he would condemn in the other. He has "no dog in the fight" so to speak.
     I cannot say for certain that there is an objective morality. I operate on the assumption that there is. I also believe that as knowledge of the effects of actions on sentient beings increases without limit and biasing interests decrease to the vanishing point perceptual standard will approach this objective standard "to any degree of precision." If there exists any being who can decree an otherwise immoral act to be moral (e.g. to assist his "chosen people") the morality is relative and not objective. Without this objectivity, one cannot really rule out the possibility that the god on whom you base your morality commanded the Holocaust. It's just more "scary stuff." In order to say that he would never do that, one would have to appeal to a higher morality.

Dr. V said...

Hello again Pvblivs,

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my replies to your previous response. Here are some more replies from me.

Pvblivs wrote:

You have used some qualifiers that have no place ("for fun" and "that isn't absolute.") Torture and rape are wrong -- even if commanded by your "unchanging god."

Hendrik’s reply:

Yes, I agree that torture and rape are wrong, period. If torture and rape are wrong, then a fortiori torture and rape for fun would be wrong. If doing X is wrong, then all the more doing X for fun would be wrong. Please note, though, that just because I think that doing X for fun is wrong, it doesn’t follow logically that I think that merely doing X isn’t wrong. I added the phrase “for fun” simply to drive home the point that there are some things/actions that are clearly wrong. (Also, in this way I could sidestep the issue of whether or not torture done not for fun has a proper place in gathering military intelligence, the answer to which I firmly believe is No.)

Pvblivs wrote:

"It just strikes me as deeply odd to say that in order to ascertain an absolute moral standard 'it is necessary to consider what we would find moral if we had no interest in the particular event.'"

It's not odd at all. But there are differing definitions for interest, so I may be unclear. Let me use an analogy. If two tribes are fighting over a piece of land, each side has an interest in the conflict. Because of this interest, each side is likely to excuse its own actions and condemn the actions of the opposing tribe. Someone completely outside, with no relations to either tribe, has no interest. He will not excuse an act committed by one tribe that he would condemn in the other. He has "no dog in the fight" so to speak.

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that you’re right in saying that there are differing definitions of interest. It seems to me, however, that some interests may be deeper than, or foundational for, others. In fact, I think that in your story of the two tribes and the outside observer who “has no interest,” there is an underlying presupposed, hugely important, and foundational interest held by the observer that goes unnoticed. And this interest is crucial for ethics. Consider this: For the story to fly, the observer seems very much to be assuming that each tribe consists of individuals who have a value that shouldn’t be violated; otherwise, and surely, the observer shouldn’t care about not excusing acts committed by one tribe that he would condemn in the other. The observer wants consistency and fairness. Why? Because the people matter. So it’s not the case that, as you say, he has “no dog in the fight.” Rather, he very apparently believes dogs have moral worth and that’s why he’s concerned about the dog fight in the first place. There’s a more fundamental, foundational interest—and this shouldn’t be missed.

Again, I encourage you (and interested readers) to take a look at chapter 2 of my dissertation. I argue there that when we look at most (if not all) major theories in ethics, they either presuppose the thesis that people have objective moral worth or this thesis acts as a moral check when we critique an ethical theory. Now my question is: Why? (Note: By asking why, I’m not denying that people have objective moral worth; I’m trying to account for it.)

I think that being made in God’s image is an explanation of this value. As I mentioned previously, a couple of my atheist/agnostic friends disagree with this explanation, though we agree that people have intrinsic moral worth. And that’s important common ground.

(A good book to read on this topic is Paul Chamberlain’s Can We Be Good Without God? A Conversation about Truth, Morality, Culture and a Few Other Things that Matter. It’s in dialog form and it’s much more fun to read than my dissertation. Chamberlain teaches philosophy at Trinity Western University, in British Columbia.)

Pvblivs wrote:

I cannot say for certain that there is an objective morality. I operate on the assumption that there is.

Hendrik’s reply:

I don’t have absolute certainty that there is an objective morality, but I think I’m pretty sure that there is. I think examples such as “torture and rape for fun” twig our moral sensibilities in such a way that we realize that there is an objective moral realm (though its nature is hard to explain). I too operate on the assumption that there is an objective morality. My experience of the world thus far is such that the world provides reasonable grounds or confirmation that this is a legitimate/true assumption.

Pvblivs wrote:

I also believe that as knowledge of the effects of actions on sentient beings increases without limit and biasing interests decrease to the vanishing point perceptual standard will approach this objective standard "to any degree of precision."

Hendrik’s reply:

I agree. But I am concerned (as I’m sure you are too) about the extent to which we can decrease biasing interests. I like to think that a good education can help do this, especially an education that encourages students to think critically about the assumptions they hold dear (whether those assumptions are Christian, Muslim, Marxist, Atheist, Buddhist, or whatever). I’m glad that colleges and universities offer courses in Critical Thinking. It would probably be good to offer similar courses in high schools.

Pvblivs wrote:

If there exists any being who can decree an otherwise immoral act to be moral (e.g. to assist his "chosen people") the morality is relative and not objective. Without this objectivity, one cannot really rule out the possibility that the god on whom you base your morality commanded the Holocaust. It's just more "scary stuff." In order to say that he would never do that, one would have to appeal to a higher morality.

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that you are alluding to what is known in philosophy as the Euthyphro Dilemma (a dilemma named after the character Euthyphro in one of Plato’s dialogs about the relationship between ethics and the gods, a dialog between Euthyphro and Socrates). I know that there are some Christian philosophers (e.g., William of Ockham) and many Muslims who argue that God can decree anything, thereby making an otherwise immoral act moral. I disagree with these thinkers.

I wrote a paper on the Euthyphro Dilemma as part of my PhD qualification area study in ethics. I wrote the paper for a fairly well-known atheist by the name of Jan Narveson. He and I disagreed deeply over various issues, but in the end Professor Narveson gave my paper an A grade. (At the University of Waterloo philosophy department the highest grade is A+.) All this to say that I don’t want to write a 30-page paper here! Maybe, though, and somehow, I’ll be able to turn the heart of that paper into a 400-word column and set it out as an installment of Apologia. (Or perhaps I can figure out a way of posting my paper somewhere on my blog.)

I will end my reply by mentioning three items.

First, I think a reasonable case can be made for thinking that ultimate moral standards are neither created by God (so not subject to divine whim) nor independent of God (so not higher than God). I’ll have to unpack this sometime in a future column (and/or I’ll figure out how to post my paper on this topic).

Second, I recommend (again) that interested readers take a look at philosopher Paul Copan’s work in this area. In particular, see his article “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics.” This paper can be found on Paul Copan’s website, the link to which is listed on the right side of my blog. (Also, and again: Whether you find Copan’s work helpful or not, it seems to me that the following philosophical point remains: if there is a God and if that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, then that God probably has at least a few morally good reasons to which I’m not privy. In other words, some mystery should be expected on the God hypothesis, and so would count in its favor. In other words again, some intellectual humility is philosophically appropriate.)

Third, I wish to remind readers that I think there are some good grounds for reasonably believing that God exists. I don’t think that every problem has to be solved in order for a person to come to a reasonable belief on this. (This fits well with what scientists do with larger scientific theories. Not everything has to be worked out in detail for a theory to have merit.) It seems to me that with respect to the God question, the pros outweigh the cons. That’s not to say that the cons do not exist; rather, it’s to say that in view of the pros and what I take to be their greater weight, I can live with the cons. As I mentioned previously, in one or more of the future installments of my column, I will provide some of the reasons for the belief/hope that I have.

Thanks, Pvblivs, for your thoughtful comments. I would like to set out a few more replies here, but there are other matters competing for my time. I must write the next installment of Apologia. Also, I must tend to my course preparations. Also, I must tend to something that my wife wanted me to do around the house, though I can’t remember exactly what… (I may be in deep trouble.)

With best regards,
Hendrik