Culture Defended

By Sean Carroll | June 28, 2006 5:53 pm

I have been known, now and again, to fret over the moral condition of our contemporary world. On such occasions, it warms my heart to think of the brave warriors of culture who are quick to defend precious institutions against the relativising onslaughts of modernity. Two recent cases in point:

  • Sixty-six Senators (out of a hundred, for you public-high-school graduates like myself) voted to amend the Constitution to stop our Flag from being burned! Now, it’s true that sixty-seven (“more than two-thirds,” ibid.) would have been required to actually scoot the proposed amendment along its way, but still it’s comforting to know that such a robust majority wants to do the right thing. After all, flag burning is up 33% this year! The amendment was a straightforward prohibition against “the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” Desecration, of course, means “to violate the sacredness of,” and sacred means “dedicated to or set apart for the worship of a deity” or “worthy of religious veneration,” which is a status I didn’t even know belonged to Old Glory. Always learning something new, I guess.
  • One Pope (that’s all there is) came out firmly against guitars in church! Because Jesus (or perhaps it is the Holy Spirit, I’m a little vague on the details) approves of chanting and organ music, but finds string instruments to be annoyingly twangy. This bold gesture fits in well with Benedict XVI’s shrewd plan to revitalize Christianity in affluent, secular cultures, where guitar music has traditionally met great resistance.

I’m not sure which of these stirring tales brings greater joy to my bitter, cynical soul. But it’s good to know that, now that we’ve successfully dealt with poverty, disease, and war, the important battles over appropriate behavior are being fought with clarity and vigor.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Religion
  • Aaron Bergman

    My guess is that flag burning has no chance of passing. The fact that it gets 66 votes is no coincidence — I’d be willing to be that those yes and no votes are carefully allocated.

  • http://RiofrioSpaceTime.blogspot.com Louise

    Does opposition to guitars indicate resistance to Strings?

  • Asher

    All I can do with regards to the first point is quote The West Wing:

    Bartlett: There is a population in this country that seems to focus so much time and energy into this conversation, so much so that I am forced to ask this question – is there an epidemic of flag burning going on that I’m not aware of?

    According to that one link the answer is a definitive…no.

  • Elliot

    I guess this means the Stones won’t be playing the Vatican anytime soon.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    There is a protestant denomination that’s fairly prominent in Nashville known as the Church of Christ.

    My wife read to me from the newspaper a quote one day that indicated that the Church of Christ (apparently) doesn’t approve of any instrumental music within worship services, because there is no evidence in the Bible that the early founders of Christianity had instrumental music in their services.

    My response was that I hoped that no Church of Christ member wore deoderant to church services….

    -Rob

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    No, but Jethro Tull and Roger Waters were nearby in the last month, and Bob Dylan and Depeche Mode, will be playing a few miles from the Vatican this summer too. :-)
    http://www.bed-breakfast-roma.com/blog/2006/04/rome-rock-concerts-summer-2006.html

  • http://vulpes82.blogspot.com Frank

    There actually IS another Pope, in Alexandria: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriarch_of_Alexandria

    There are three claimants to the title, though, so I’ll leave it to your theological sympathies to decide which, if any, or all, “deserve” it.

  • Elliot

    Amara,

    You failed to point out that Madonna is playing Rome as well. That should be entertaining ;)

  • Cynthia

    New Playground Rules to be Posted upon Catholic Bulletin Boards across the World:

    Rule#1) Guitars will no longer be allowed to ride upon the Back of God :-(

    Rule#2) Guitars will only allowed to ride upon the Back of Satan :-)

  • Athena
  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudents

    Aaron–I would be even more suprised to see 38 states willing to approve a flag burning amendment.

    If they were willing to reconcider the ERA along the way, however… (it still hasn’t sunsetted–3 more states needed)

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    A flag-burning amendment would have the predictable effect of encouraging flag burning, which would thereby instantly become an effective form of civil disobedience. Talking about putting people in jail for flag burning is a good way to play to the cheap seats. Actually putting people in jail for flag burning is something else again. It would give the initiative to the people the right wing hates the most.

  • http://www.rawdc.com z.king

    I’m not sure which of these stirring tales brings greater joy to my bitter, cynical soul.

    Yea, but my happy, cynical soul is quite sure that you’re shining light on just one side of several double edged swords to support some of your claims.

    But it’s good to know that, now that we’ve successfully dealt with poverty, disease, and war, the important battles over appropriate behavior are being fought with clarity and vigor.

    And why do you keep bringing up morality? You’re an atheist. It must be some sort of con job you’re working. If there is no God, all things are lawful.

    But you guys do allow dissent, and that speaks better of you than Humour Me Dembski.

  • JFH

    In reply to z.king (And why do you keep bringing up morality? You’re an atheist. It must be some sort of con job you’re working. If there is no God, all things are lawful.): I find this very offensive.

    If there is no god, you must decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong, instead of having a few men milennia ago (and some translators and editors in between) doing it for you.

    Do you think that as a non-religious person I have no reason to say thou shalt not kill? Should anyone doubt, picture yourself walking through a crowded street. Assume for the moment that “because there is no god I can kill anyone I see”. Then imagine everyone else thinking the same. There is a reason why morality (either with or without religion) is helpful to any society, but should anyone fail to figure it out I won’t mind if any religion fills the moral void and keeps the streets a bit safer, as long as that religion adheres to at least the core subset of my morality. And to be honest, most religions do so regarding most details and that’s not incidental either.

    Do not attribute to divinity what man do for himself.

  • Paul Flocken

    There is a certain a irony in banning guitars. One of the most beloved carols of christmastime was specifically set to acoustic guitar music.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/advent/carols/index.shtml
    Sincerely,
    Paul Flocken

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    Surely whether religion makes people more or less tractable should be a secondary question to people for whom understanding things is the primary value. I have my doubts that the goofier forms of belief make people act better or not, but I have no doubts whatsoever that traditional religious ideas are literally false. Since I actually do have principles, that’s what matters to me.

  • Vince

    Hi Sean,

    In response to “Because Jesus (or perhaps it is the Holy Spirit, I’m a little vague on the details)”, I would say, being a Catholic, that probably this isn’t some sort of “truth” being revealed by the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure what the correct terminology is, but when the Church makes an “official teaching” on something about faith or morality (as opposed to the details of how the Church is run, what kind of music is played during Mass, etc.), it is the Holy Spirit that guides them, or inspires them, and, thus, the teaching is considered to be infallible. For what the Holy Spirit is exactly, please consult a Catholic dictionary or Catechism, or something like that.

    Anyway, if the Pope is against guitars during Mass, it doesn’t mean that some sort of truth is being revealed. It’s just the Pope’s opinion, and if guitars really do get banned during Mass in the future, it doesn’t mean that the Church will never approve of guitars in the future, and this isn’t a teaching about the faith or about morality; for now it’s just an opinion on what is considered to be proper music during the Mass. I’m not sure what “proper” means; but for me, at least, I’m more effectively placed in a spiritual mood if things like organs are playing. Hearing guitars in church is a little strange and distracting, possibly because guitars are so prevalent in popular music, and definitely in the music that I listen to. It’s good to get away from all, I think, and have the traditional organ music. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Anyway, it’s just the Pope’s opinion, and if guitars do get banned or not, only time will tell. But the future Church will still be able to bring back guitars.

    So, basically, this is just an issue about what kinds of music should be involved in our worship. It doesn’t mean that the Church isn’t involved in the “important battles over appropriate behavior”. It really is. But it also wants to advise the world’s Catholics on the appropriate form of worship. After all, Mass is, first and foremost, about giving thanks and praise to God, which is a key component of Christianity, aside from social justice.

    Hope this was helpful.

    I very much enjoy your physics posts, by the way. I’m learning lots about the kind of research being done in physics, and the latest happenings. :)

  • Vince

    JFH: You said,

    “you must decide for yourself what is right and what is wrong”

    One question which logically follows is, “How do I know that what I have decided to be what is right and what is wrong is actually correct, objectively?” What goes into that decision?

    Also, in what way should morality be helpful to society? How should morality serve society? Why?

    Why do I want society to go on?

    Thanks.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Ah, morality, that old chestnut again!

    Vince, you don’t need an objective morality. In fact, objective morality is nonexistent if you treat all religions equally: All (or at least most) religions come with a morality thrown in, and they all tend to claim absolute truth. Logically, this is not possible, since these moralities tend to differ. So given that there is no objective morality (the atheist’s position) you have to find a morality that “works”. You can invoke the principles of evolution that govern societies for that, for example.

    There seems to be a very strong tendency for believers (at least in the US) to assume that atheists are completely without morals. This is no doubt partly because of the old anti-communist propaganda. However, if you are honest and rational, you have to admit that there are other moral philosophies besides religion.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    You don’t have to believe that reason is capable of defining the best way to act in each and every situation in order to deny the irrationality of right and wrong. It suffices that there are cogent arguments in favor of acting in certain ways. That doesn’t sound like much, but it actually covers most of the cases–it really isn’t rocket science to figure out what’s wrong with lying and murder, and one hardly needs God Almighty to make the point. Indeed, invoking God Almighty doesn’t ultimately help since we have to decide whether the Voice from the Burning Bush is steering us straight.

    I agree that the morality of the Thou Shalts is indispensible. It entirely appropriate for children, who have to be dissuaded from running out into the street before they’re able to understand the rules and resist their own impulses.

  • Vince

    The comment I made which, for some reason, got erased was just a link for more info (from a Catholic news agency) about the portion of Sean’s post about the Pope and his opinion on guitar music during Mass. I wanted to submit it only to help clarify things in the other links and in Sean’s post about it. Relax.

    If you don’t want people to contribute more reliable information about something, don’t post about it. Here’s the link again. You DON’T have to click on it if you don’t want to.

    http://zenit.org/english/visualizza.phtml?sid=91605

  • Shane Caldwell

    JFH, Jim Harrison, and PK,

    You all seem to be advocating for an idea of morality without God.  I have come to believe that the argument you are making — that there is a non-arbitrary way to order one’s actions without reference to any absolute moral principle — is impossible.  C. S. Lewis made a pretty complete demonstration of this in The Abolition of Man.  His argument there is made on principles, but more recently there has amassed some emprirical evidence as well, as post-modern attempts to ground ethics have failed.  I can recommend an article I found helpful, written by Arthur Leff of Yale Law School, called Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law (Duke Law Journal, Vol. 1979, No. 6, Symposium on Law and Ethics (Dec, 1979), pp. 1229-1249).  Mine is just an amateur’s account; but I have been told that philosophers are increasingly resolute about the impossibility of morality without God, and in many cases they argue for a deity from the need for it (not the social benefit but what they are willing to take as the empirical fact that, say, the holocaust was evil no natter what any of us believes of it).

    I am assuming that ethics is a subject of knowledge about which there is the possibility of knowing true things.  With that in mind, I have a few criticisms for each of you.

    To PFH:

    Your idea of “having a few men millennia ago (and some translators and editors in between) doing it for you,” is wrong on every point.  First off, your suggestion that the bible has been substantially altered by its passage through language and history is one of the most readily dismissable of misconceptions about it.  The evidence that the text is accurate is overwhelming.  More importantly, you ignore the crucial fact that the Christian reference point is God, not men of any age. Maybe you think that is stupid — after all, your argument must assume the reference to God to be false in order to refer the moral authority of Christianity to ancient men — but at least it is logically sound.  The same cannot be said for your attempt to demonstrate your moral self-sufficiency by assuming the alternative to be false.

    Finally, your assertion that you are better than ancient men is obviously unjustified. Ethics without absolutes always breaks down on this point: on what grounds do you believe your own judgment to be superior to that of anyone else? You merely state that your determination is better than those of ancient men; but you do not attempt to justify this. But never mind, because atheism cannot possibly give you any way of justifying it, because atheism makes no absolute moral distinctions, i.e. indications as to what might ever actually be better. Like you said, it’s up to you to decide. But how do you decide how to decide? And, in turn, how do you decide that? I think you have your feet, as they say, planted firmly, midair.

    I think you are hitting on a good point, though. Christian ethics, like every other kind, does entrust to men and women — to individuals, for themselves — the working out of the good life. Atheistic ethics demands this and also demands that there can be no reason for trusting individuals. But Christianity is different in that it gives an ultimate and economical justification of this (as well as a deep explanation of much else) by way of the attributes of God and the salient facts of our creation. We are *meant* to have freedom, rather than it being an accident or an illusion. But it is freedom to be happy, which for us, as we actually know, is in the fulfillment of some purpose, not in the ability to do whatever we want. We are given, says theism, not mere agency but agency conditioned by a moral law which, though we do not fully understand it, bears upon us whether we like it or not. The point is, only a theist has any logical grounds for trusting even himself. The atheist must remain stuck with the mere adolescent assertion of absolute individualism.

    You ask, “Do you think that as a non-religious person I have no reason to say thou shalt not kill?”  If you an atheist, then I think exactly that.  I am sure you do say it, but I doubt if you can give a reason for it that is compatible with atheism. To be precise, I don’t think you can understand the word “shalt” in that context, where it means “ought to”. Of course you understand it as a person, but only by being illogical as an atheist. If I am wrong, then show me how.  I am not asking for your feelings on the subject of murder, as they are the same as mine: I know you don’t like the thought of lots of people killing each other.  But what is the logical foundation of your acceptance of the moral injunction, that would justify your demanding that someone else must abide by it as well? If I were an atheist, why must I care whether people kill each other? Or, in general, tell me what “ought to” means for an atheist. I suggest that an atheist has two choices: either “ought to” refers to a feeling and therefore makes no moral demand, or it is a false and inane conceit, like saying my computer “ought to” do something. Either way misunderstands the commandment, and cannot by reason motivate one to obey it. You also say that religion may be “helpful”. What do you mean by this? I do not understand that word apart from some notion of what is, or can be, Good, with my own personal feelings and preferences notwithstanding.

    One last point, at the risk of being presumptuous (and I do apologize if this is misguided advice). It is you who adheres to religious morality, not the other way around. I suspect that you, like me, got your ideas about morality from religion, even if it was indirectly through the religious formation of your society. If you want to be an atheist, then of course you would have the hard work of abandoning the religious ground on which your practical philosophy has come to rest. And it may not be possible to recover with atheism all of the palatable and robust features of the Christian philosophy, such as its condemnation of evil.

    To Jim Harrison,

    I appreciate your principle of valuing the truth or falsity of religion over the incidents of its practice by people. Sean’s post, for example, does not reflect the same value. But I doubt that your having “no doubts whatsoever that traditional religious ideas are literally false” is helping you to know the truth. It reads like a fundamentalist mantra, which is not usually a signal of knowledge and careful reasoning. I wonder if it is really true of you?

    “You don’t have to believe that reason is capable of defining the best way to act in each and every situation in order to deny the irrationality of right and wrong.” Oops, I misread that sentence at first, but now I think I understand it. At first I thought you were saying that right and wrong are irrational, in which case your invocation of the wrongness of lying and murder would have been questionable. But I think you are saying that absolute right and wrong can exist in some way without our having to understand it fully and on our own terms. I agree with you fully on this, and in fact I think it is a crucial part of good ethics. It is central to Christian ethics, for example.

    You say we don’t need God to figure out what is wrong with lying and murder — it’s not rocket science. You are right, it is not rocket science. But it is something. I would say that one only needs to be human to know *that* lying and murder are wrong, but knowing *why* takes a bit more. If you say you can know why without needing to refer to an absolute moral authority, then please make the demonstration.

    “Indeed, invoking God Almighty doesn’t ultimately help since we have to decide whether the Voice from the Burning Bush is steering us straight.” You are right that we must decide for ourselves whether God exists and is good. But our finding on this matter does not determine the fact. Either God exists or God does not exist, regardless of what you and I think. The insufficiency of our conclusions does not imply, or even suggest, the insufficiency of God. So your argument makes no progress on showing that God’s existence and goodness is not actually necessitated by a belief in absolute morality, i.e. a moral law that does not respect all of our opinions.

    To PK:

    I think you are right that one cannot logically make a total synthesis of all religious moral claims. But so what? Why would we, as you hypothesize, treat all religions equally? Do you treat all other kinds of claims equally, and then therefore dismiss them all? If each of five paintings of Cosimo shows him looking differently, should I conclude that he looked like nothing? If John tells Bill that dinner is at 6:00 and Susan tells Bill that dinner is at 6:15, should Bill conclude that dinner is off? Should he overlook the near agreement of both statements in order to strain out the small inconsistency? But that is just what you are doing for objective morality. One can call that logic, but it is really a kind of logicism that obscures the truth. Your use of lesser inconsistencies of religious moralities while overlooking their greater uniformities is a blunder, seen all the more clearly when one remembers that the evidence you want to bring in is usually cited by theists, precisely because it strongly suggests the presence of some underlying truth to all the earnest attempts at representation. (See The Abolition of Man for a brief presentation of the evidence on religions.)

    “You can invoke the principles of evolution that govern societies for that, for example.” Sure, you can. You could not, however, give any moral reason why this ought to be your choice, as versus another scheme. You might even evolutionary ethics were a good idea, unless you remembered that this has so far been used to justify oppression and ethnic cleansing. I mean, you are providing a perfect example of atheistic ethics, but it doesn’t help your case. Evolutionary ethics is famous only for its cruelty. Atheists like to criticize Christianity for its crimes without contemplating the far greater crimes of the atheistic regimes over the past century. Christians have had to apologize for the Inquisition, the Crusades, its often ruthless imperialism, as they have done. On the other hand, it is rarely praised as the impetus for the abolition of slavery in America, or for giving rise to the universities and to science, or for its countless acts of charity over the ages. (Do you wonder, for example, why hospitals have crosses on them?) But atheism have Nazism, Stalin, and China to apologize for, all while being recommended by what coordination of benefits to society? And note this well: the crimes of Christians have been departures from Christian ethics, while the crimes of atheism have been solidly and deliberately rooted in the philosophy and scripture of atheism. Far from providing a great recommendation for atheism, experience demonstrates its horrifying failure in ethics.

    Last point:

    I ask all of you: Does evil exist?  You all know the feeling of evil, and you know it when you see it; why, then, would you deny the fact of evil?  But if evil exists, it is only by reference to a true standard of good.  And from where comes the standard?

  • Ruth Ellen

    In regards to “flag desecration” – I suspect that all those good religious folks in the Capitol would be a wee bit disconcerted at being accused of idolatry, eh? But that’s just what it is.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    From a strictly philosophical point of view, atheism is not very interesting. Why get excited about the discovery that anvils don’t float? Since “God” doesn’t make the cut as a credible candidate explanation for anything, denying his existence is largely a waste of time. Besides, there is no consensus on what God might be so it’s never clear what there is to deny. It isn’t even possible to make sense of agnosticism since I have no idea what it is I’m supposed to doubt.

    If God is somehow necessary to underpin an absolute morality, then so much the worse for absolute morality. As I wrote before, I think it is possible to make cogent arguments in favor of one rule of action over another. That’s not the same thing as maintaining that morality is 100% objective; but it is, as it were, good enough for government work. I don’t expect to be able to specify exactly and comprehensively what the proper and binding rules of behavior for all people at all times. Do you really think that there is an abolute moral rule, mandated by Yahweh, about whether the salad fork goes on the left or the right of the dinner fork? Most people who’ve thought about ethics have wanted to deny that the demand for objective right and wrong applies to small matters, but once you propose that right has an absolute standard, it’s actually quite hard to avoid being totalitarian about such things and not just in theory.

  • Shane Caldwell

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for your response. The answer to your question about salad forks is No. Do you “really” think I was talking about salad forks?

    You’re right that ethics is hard in practice, but does that mean it must be groundless? You don’t have to give a complete statement of a system of moral law to say what you might take as the authority on which your own moral determinations can be said to have any worth. To understand right and wrong, even imperfectly, don’t we need some idea of what this authority might be? You can’t know all the answers, but you can investigate whether your own ideas are even coherent.

    In fact, I very much doubt if the moral authority of God is much like a law at all, as we think of laws and systems of laws. I would tend to think that it is completely whole and indivisible into separate principles and finite statements; therefore that it gets damaged in the translation to our own understanding. But I also believe some truth gets through, and I am interested in that.

    You’re right, anvils don’t float. In my opinion, that is worth knowing if you are dealing with anvils.

    You’re wrong about God not making sense as an explanation.

    Your point about people disagreeing about God is no help in determining whether God exists. Moreover, the fact that humans so uniformly have a desire for the divine may suggest that there is a thing which fulfills the desire, even if people have secondary differences in their speculations about the nature of this fulfillment. There also might be ways to find out fo oneself whether God exists, such as prayer.

    Not every question is a moral question, and many situations seem to involve morality in very complex ways. You are right that it is hard, and again I think this is a crucial insight. There have always been legalists (such as those whom Jesus so consistently and energetically denounced), but to me it is too simple to therefore throw up one’s hands about evil entirely. I ask you again, was the holocaust evil or not?

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    This thread and a good part of human history testify to the fascination that people have with divinity, but none of the obsession gets us any closer to defining or even identifying the object of this obsession. I think the real commonality here is the human propensity to look for an agent operating behind events, a tendency whose adaptive value has often been pointed out. From the zebra’s point of view, it’s better to assume that the noise in the bushes may be a lion. That sort of programmatic paranoia is all very well, but it does tend to fill the world up with imaginary beings like Gods and Demons.

    I think evil is as much a superstition as God, but that has nothing to do with endorsing the holocaust. The real question, from my point of view, is whether people are willing to put their lives on the line to prevent events like the holocaust, not whether they are willing to pronounce a magic anathema on it in the comments section.

    Why do you think a rule is groundless if there is no supernatural authority for it? I mean you don’t seem to argue to the proposition that such an authority is necessary. You argue from it. I don’t. Of course I’m not looking for quite so transcendent a standard as you are. I expect ethics to be a pretty humdrum subject with few surprises. It’s about how people should live together. It isn’t cosmic.

  • Ruth Ellen

    I have no trouble defining morality. And while it comes from Jewish tradition, it has nothing to do with a god. The story goes that when some smart-aleck guy asked Hillel to teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, he responded “what is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. That is the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary.” I would alter that somewhat, to “what is hateful to your neigbor, try not to do to your neighbor…” (sometimes called the “platinum rule). The rest is commentary. And food for a lot of debate.

  • Shane Caldwell

    That is a good rule, Ruth, although as a summary of the Torah I think it is very selective. What I am asking, though, is whether there is a reason why someone who doesn’t happen to like your rule should respect it anyway? Can you give this reason?

    Jim, do you ever object to the behavior of anyone? If so, is it because of anything other than superstition, in your mind?

  • Shane Caldwell

    That is a good rule, Ruth, although as a summary of the Torah I think it is very selective. At any rate, what I am asking is whether there is a reason why someone who doesn’t happen to like your rule should respect it anyway? Can you give this reason?

    Jim, do you ever object to the behavior of anyone? If so, is it because of anything other than superstition, in your mind? Doesn’t a person who dies fighting against tyranny do so only if that person thinks tyranny is evil (or wrong, if you like that word better)? So that person has died for the sake of a superstition, in your opinion?

    “It’s about how people should live together. It isn’t cosmic,” you say. Well, some large groups of people have believed that the way people should live together is under religious dictatorships, or by making genocidal war on their neighbors, or by performing systematic cliterectomies on their young women. But then, that is their preference, and who are we to deny the rightness of it?

    Once again: can you say why we should reject things like these?

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    As Humpty Dumpty would say, Shane asks tremendously easy riddles. There are all sorts of cogent, non-theological reasons to oppose tyranny and genocide. I can’t believe that anybody reading this paragraph would have any problem coming up with scads of ‘em. There is vastly more evidence for the plain wrongness of certain acts than for the existence of any deity.

    The irrationalist version of religious ethics leaves people with the impression that the only reason they ought not resort to violence and chicanery is divine fiat. But what happens when people who buy into this view lose their faith? What keeps them from murdering us in our beds if murder was only wrong because God said it was? To judge from the track record of religious sects, this is not merely a theoretical worry.

  • Vince

    “As Humpty Dumpty would say, Shane asks tremendously easy riddles. There are all sorts of cogent, non-theological reasons to oppose tyranny and genocide.”

    Go ahead, tell us.

    If I were to lose my faith, I guess there are two reasons why I wouldn’t murder anyone:

    1. I, myself, wouldn’t want to be killed by someone because I value my life and there are lots of things I want to accomplish. So I wouldn’t even consider doing that to someone else, inflicting any sort of pain on them unless I had to (i.e. out of self defense). But if there is no objective morality, who cares what I think. If you want to go ahead and kill someone and you feel completely okay about it, it’s your call.

    2. If I were to get caught, I would have to go through a lot of crap. It ain’t worth it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I don’t know about you, Vince, but I actually don’t want to kill anyone, even though God does not exist. Nor do any of my atheist friends. Nor do most people in society. So we get together and pass laws that work to punish people when they do start killing.

    That’s just the way the real world works — people have moral preferences, which they attempt to think through and systematize into a coherent set of beliefs, and then negotiate with other members of society to develop those preferences into an agreeable set of laws, leaving reasonable room for the fact that not everyone has the same preferences. (So we have laws against killing humans, but not laws against eating cows.) People who want to claim that morality can’t exist without God choose to ignore the empirical fact that it does.

  • Belizean

    I don’t know about you, Vince, but I actually don’t want to kill anyone…

    Perhaps not now, Sean, but what about right after you learn that some guy has just raped, tortured, and mutilated your ten-year-old daughter? [Substitute your favorite significant other.]

    There’s no point in rehashing this again. One view is right, one wrong. Either

    A) Religion has a negligible net effect in inhibiting savage impulses. So we’re better off without it, because it’s factually wrong.

    or

    B) Religion has a significant net effect in inhibiting savage impulses. So we’re better off with it, despite its being factually wrong.

    Just attempting to clarify.

    Your fellow atheist in Christ,

    B.

    P.S. That you don’t want to kill anyone — given that men currently live who enslave, torture, and starve millions of human beings — is rather disquieting.

  • Vince

    Or,

    C) Christianity is factually correct, and so we’re better off with it. :)

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    I guess this really is a kindergarden class, and you have to spell everything out:

    Murdering people is a bad idea because a world in which people murder freely would be a lousy place to live. Even if an individual absolutely, positively knows that he can get away with murder, he would diminish yourself by abusing the dignity of a being like himself–there is an element of suicide in murder. Sane and healthy individuals feel revulsion at the thought of “murder most foul,” but they also have reasons to reject such behavior that transcend emotions.

    Conservatives, so it seems, are always looking for reasons to kill somebody. That’s why they have to demonize their enemies. James Bond’s license to kill is only justifiable because of SPECTRE, an organization dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of evil. A similar logic seems to underlie the typical right-wing belief that most or all people are only restrained from running amok by draconic punishments and the fear of hellfire. If you favor authoritarian governments and primitive religiosity anyhow, it’s a wonderful excuse.

    People aren’t angels, and nobody is born with the ability to make rational moral decisions. Some people do have to be restrained by punishment, and everybody has to be trained before they can be educated. Similarly, it is sometimes right and necessary to oppose dangerous and crazy states with deadly force. On the other hand, we ought to be very suspicious of people who are just itching for an excuse to hurt people under color of authority.

  • Vince

    “I guess this really is a kindergarden class, and you have to spell everything out”

    That’s ‘kindergarten’. :)

  • meridian

    You all seem to be advocating for an idea of morality without God. I have come to believe that the argument you are making — that there is a non-arbitrary way to order one’s actions without reference to any absolute moral principle — is impossible.

    Shorter Shane:

    1. Monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity, that advocate the oppression of a class of beings (women) are moral.

    2. If an atheist is one who does not believe in God or gods, and atheists cannot have morals, then Buddhism, Taoism, and religious philosophies like them without a specific God, are amoral. Or impossible.

    Likewise, since anything before theism rendered us all immoral, then we aren’t really here, because as beings without God, and therefore lacking a moral code, our ancestors all killed each other. Animals, too, don’t really exist, since they can’t understand God either, and as soon as they spring into being, lacking a moral system, they just kill each other.

    How about this perspective instead: Hitler and Stalin outlawed religion because it competed with them in terms of absolute authority, not because they didn’t believe in God. In fact, I propose they did believe in God, and they didn’t like the competition. Goebbels himself likened Nazism to a “faith.” I’ve never heard of any “philosophy and scripture” of atheism attributed to Hitler. Rather, it’s the conservative tendency to provoke a gut reaction, instead of posing a rational argument, that leads them to assign Hitler labels to anything they dislike, and therefore blames Nazism and Communism on atheism.

    With regard to the Bible and its contradictions, can it really be said that Christianity is a non-arbitrary system?

    Of course, it’s Shane’s *belief* that is the basis of argument, so nobody can really gainsay it. If there were evidence that lack of belief in God predisposes one to immorality, and belief in God transforms one into a saint, then it’d be different, and one might actually be tempted to take the argument seriously.

  • Vince

    “1. Monotheistic religions, particularly Christianity, that advocate the oppression of a class of beings (women) are moral.”

    Women are not oppressed in Christianity. They’re just not allowed to become priests.

    “2. If an atheist is one who does not believe in God or gods, and atheists cannot have morals, then Buddhism, Taoism, and religious philosophies like them without a specific God, are amoral. Or impossible.”

    Athiests can have morals. That’s what Shane is saying. But she’s saying that athiests can’t rationally base their morals on athiesm itself.

    “Likewise, since anything before theism rendered us all immoral, then we aren’t really here, because as beings without God, and therefore lacking a moral code, our ancestors all killed each other. Animals, too, don’t really exist, since they can’t understand God either, and as soon as they spring into being, lacking a moral system, they just kill each other.”

    Totally illogical. What are you talking about? It’s not like we were immoral before theism. Shane’s just saying atheists can’t use atheism to support their morals.

    I don’t know if I agree with that completely, but that’s what Shane is saying.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    I’m not sure why anybody would think that morality is built on atheism, whatever that would mean. Presumably people who don’t believe in God justify their morality by appeal to reason and experience. What’s the absence of God got to do with it?

  • Vince

    “I’m not sure why anybody would think that morality is built on atheism, whatever that would mean. Presumably people who don’t believe in God justify their morality by appeal to reason and experience.”

    My opinion is that, ultimately, morality must be based on reason. For a Christian, as an example, it is sufficient for Jesus to have said that X is morally wrong, but one must ultimately be able to use reason to show that X is in fact morally wrong.

    So I guess the question is, when you begin your reasoning about what is and what is not morally wrong, what premises are you holding? Must you hold certain premises in order to have a “self-consistent” (not sure what I mean by this word :) ) morality? Can you have premises which are compatible with atheism? Or, in order to justify your morality, must you base your reasoning on tenets of theism?

    (Also, I think that since we are all of the same human nature, what is a morally wrong action should be morally wrong for everybody.)

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    Historically, many, if not most, theistic philosophers have maintained that morality is something we can know rationally. They may believe that there are mysteries of the faith that can only be learned or validated by revelation, but ordinary ethical rules aren’t like the Trinity or the creation of everything from nothing. Non-Christian philosophers like Aristotle had an analogous opinion. Ethics grows out of human interactions. It is anything but highfallutin and its mostly unremarkable rules don’t have to be proved from axioms like geometrical theorems. We have binding obligations to one another whether or not we happen to believe in God.

  • Vince

    Why do we have binding obligations to one another?

  • http://www.rawdc.com z.king

    Sean said…People who want to claim that morality can’t exist without God choose to ignore the empirical fact that it does.

    And Sean has empirically proven that there is no God. He’s on the outside looking in, unlike the rest of us on the inside looking out.

    It’s his miniature particle accelerator test tube experiment where he adds some of this and adds a little of that and smashes one or two particles together too, and when God doesn’t show up in the mix, he knows that God doesn’t exist.

    Again, it’s as Dostoevsky said in so many words in The Brother’s Karamozov, if there is no God all things are lawful. If so, it’s a free for all. If so, it’s survival of the fittest. That is the logical conclusion all you logicons. At least Nietze took atheism to its logical conclusion.

    But maybe, what Sean really meant is that morality can exist apart from a belief in God.

    But no no no because emphatically he states:

    I don’t know about you, Vince, but I actually don’t want to kill anyone, even though God does not exist.

    Why does he know God doesn’t exist? Because he has the miniature little particle accelerator test tube to prove it.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    Dostoevsky had it exactly backwards. If God is dead, nothing is permitted, there being, after all, nobody licensed to do any permitting. For the record, that was also Nietzsche’s opinion. He thought that the consequence of the death of God would probably be the Last Man, i.e. an apathetic, essentially passive creature.

    Note that “God” in this context doesn’t refer to some purported metaphysical entity but to an ultimate value that retains credibility. In this respect, it isn’t quite right to blame atheism for the excesses of Lenin and Stalin since God wasn’t dead for them in this sense. They or at least their followers were certainly true believers even if their deity was Dialectical Materialism instead of God Allmighty. Really great crimes require faith, which, come to think of it, is a proposition that could be converted into a defense of religion.

  • Vince

    Hi.
    Why do we have binding obligations to one another?

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    Back in the day, there was a pest who followed around after Descartes and kept insisting, “I think, but I don’t think I am!”

    Obviously one can claim not to recognize the obligations we have to other people. People who are actually unable to recognize them, however, are defective human beings who are typically fouled up in other ways as well. One finds them in prisons and the 4th edition of the DSM. I don’t think too many of us would choose to be crazy in this fashion.

    If I point out that taking off all your clothes and jumping in a cactus patch is likely to result in intense pain, you are perfectly at liberty to insist that my argument is highly arbitrary since it assumes that it is a bad thing to suffer. Well, explanations have an end, as Wittgenstein used to point out. If you want to jump in that cactus patch, be my guest.

  • Vince

    Hey, how’s it going?

    So why do we have binding obligations to one another?

  • Vince

    “Obviously one can claim not to recognize the obligations we have to other people. People who are actually unable to recognize them, however, are defective human beings who are typically fouled up in other ways as well.”

    Why are they defective human beings? What does it mean to be a defective human being? What is such a human being lacking? I thought humans are just a collection of cells working together. Or a collection of atoms, if you will. A huge collection without any free will. We’re purely material beings following the laws of physics. What’s “defective” about that?

    “If I point out that taking off all your clothes and jumping in a cactus patch is likely to result in intense pain, you are perfectly at liberty to insist that my argument is highly arbitrary since it assumes that it is a bad thing to suffer.”

    What is your argument? Personally, I choose not to take off all my clothes and jump onto a cactus because that’s too painful and there’s absolutely no benefit in doing such a thing. So what? What are you trying to argue here? There are lots of people of choose to inflict a bit of suffering on themselves for some benefit which is greater than the pain they experience.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    Folks who are looking for some sort of absolute morality are probably doomed to disappointment since even postulating the existence of God really doesn’t help. “Why those ten, Yahweh?” On the other hand, if, like me, you figure that it’s enough that there are cogent, though hardly cosmic arguments, in favor of acting well, what’s the shouting about? It is written in the Bible that the heathen rage in vain. Apparently it isn’t just the heathen.

    You might try asking yourself the metaquestion. What would I count as an answer to the question, “Why should I act well?” If you’re not going to accept the homely sorts of reasons that I’ve suggested, just what kind of answers would suit you?

  • Vince

    I guess you don’t have an answer for my previous comment, then. Very well.

    “Folks who are looking for some sort of absolute morality are probably doomed to disappointment since even postulating the existence of God really doesn’t help.”

    So, you’re saying that no such absolute morality exists? If that is correct, then why do you claim that we must “act well”. Why should I act well? Perhaps to preserve society? Why should we work to preserve society, or preserve the earth, or preserve anything at all? What’s so good about human life and society anyway? I mean, do humans have intrinsic worth or something? But we’re just made of atoms. You’ve suggested “homely sorts of reasons”, but I’m not exactly sure of what they are or where they are exactly. Maybe I’m demanding too much precision or explicit exposition. I’m sorry.

    Since we’re all human, then whatever constitutes “acting well” must apply to all humans, no? If so, there should be some sort of absolute morality, right? Isn’t the demand to “act well” an absolute truth?

    “On the other hand, if, like me, you figure that it’s enough that there are cogent, though hardly cosmic arguments, in favor of acting well, what’s the shouting about?”

    Can you remind me what these arguments are, please? I’m not sure if you listed them out for us. Thank you.

    Don’t forget my previous comment, my friend. :)

    Have a great day!

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    I reminded of what happens when you argue with creationists about evolution. They say, “So where are the transitional fossils?” and you supply ‘em with a list and they come back with “So where are the transitional fossils?”

    To quote myself: “Murdering people is a bad idea because a world in which people murder freely would be a lousy place to live. Even if an individual absolutely, positively knows that he can get away with murder, he would diminish yourself by abusing the dignity of a being like himself—there is an element of suicide in murder. Sane and healthy individuals feel revulsion at the thought of “murder most foul,” but they also have reasons to reject such behavior that transcend emotions.”

    Those sorts of arguments are all I’ve got. They seem like enough to me, but if they aren’t good enough for you, have a nice day.

  • Vince

    Thanks Jim. Sorry, I completely missed that quote from higher up in the thread. That’s a perfectly good reason, and I agree with you completely.

    “I reminded of what happens when you argue with creationists about evolution. They say, “So where are the transitional fossils?” and you supply ‘em with a list and they come back with “So where are the transitional fossils?”"

    I have trouble believing that. Perhaps you are exaggerating. I think the better explanation is that some creationists don’t know everything about the fossil record or what every other creationist knows and what every evolutionist knows. Thus, they ask where the transitional fossils are even though other creationists, at other times, asked the same question and received an answer. Isn’t that a better explanation?

    “Even if an individual absolutely, positively knows that he can get away with murder, he would diminish yourself by abusing the dignity of a being like himself—there is an element of suicide in murder.”

    So humans have dignity, eh? Where does this diginity come from? What exactly does it mean to have dignity?

    Don’t forget comment number 48. :) Talk to you later, Jim.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    On a Thursday morning, I’m not sure I’m up to stating a total philosophy of man and nature in three paragraphs or less. In order to be a moral individual, one does not need to have a worked-out theory of ethcs, let alone a general metaphysics about the ontological status of the soul or the freedom of the will. I thought the issue had once been whether a nonbeliever can be moral, a much easier question. After all, if I turn out to be wrong in my speculations about the nature of things, I’m not going to be especially surprised; but I’d be very surprised to find out that it was a good thing to kill people.

    It seems to me that my existence as a rational human being is tied up with my membership in a community of other rational beings. Because the others are like me in a crucial way, I can’t treat them as mere objects or tools without implicitly degrading myself. This way of looking at things is often associated with Kant’s philosophy, but almost all reflection on right and wrong involves something similar. I don’t think it is one of those edifying ideas it would be pretty to believe. I figure it’s simply right.

  • Belizean

    Even if an individual absolutely, positively knows that he can get away with murder, he would diminish yourself by abusing the dignity of a being like himself—there is an element of suicide in murder.

    Jim,

    You’re a perfect example of a point that I’ve made here before. Atheists raised in a Christian culture are so steeped in the associated customs and attitudes that they aren’t even aware that they’ve absorbed them. Do you seriously believe that a Greek aristocrat of the 8th century B.C., a Germanic tribesman of the 3rd century A.D., or a Palestinian Muslim of the 21st century felt or feel “diminished” when he “abuses the dignity of a being like himself” when he murders? These are all members of cultures in which murder was a means of preserving one’s honor. Not committing murder in certain circumstances would have been and still is regarded as the height of immorality. There was and is no self diminishing element to it whatsoever.

    Sane and healthy individuals feel revulsion at the thought of “murder most foul,”…

    Are you kidding me? So anyone who murders then sleeps like a baby is insane? What you really mean to say here is that atheistic liberals, who have internalized the Christian taboo against murder as a consequence of growing up in a Christian society, feel revulsion at the thought of murder.

    Please note:

    1. It’s natural for humans (and certain other species) to kill their own kind (murder).

    2. A largely successful means of restraining murderous and other savage human passions (sufficiently well to permit the rise of civilizations) has been the inculcation of religious beliefs and customs from birth.

    3. In the absence of the reinforcing effect of a society’s religion, the customs restraining human impulses will weaken with each successive generation.

    4. There is no secular system of beliefs known to restrain savage human impulses to the degree required to sustain civilization.

    5. The currently lack of such secular system of belief does not preclude the possibility of its being developed in the future.

    There’s no point in lying to ourselves. It’s perfectly okay to be an atheist and acknowledge that 1) our society can’t survive on the secular beliefs currently extant, and 2) it only seems that it can survive on them because we’re coasting on Christian traditions.

  • Vince

    “In order to be a moral individual, one does not need to have a worked-out theory of ethcs, let alone a general metaphysics about the ontological status of the soul or the freedom of the will. I thought the issue had once been whether a nonbeliever can be moral, a much easier question.”

    I don’t think that was the issue. Of course a nonbeliever can be a moral individual and one does not need to have a worked-out theory of ethics to be moral. I think the issue is whether or not an absolute morality (which both of us knows exists) is possible if God (i.e. some “higher” or transcendant being) doesn’t exist, or if humans are purely material beings (just a collection of atoms, nothing more, nothing less). If there is no other will than the will of human beings, is there such a thing as an absolute morality independent of any human being?

    “It seems to me that my existence as a rational human being is tied up with my membership in a community of other rational beings. Because the others are like me in a crucial way, I can’t treat them as mere objects or tools without implicitly degrading myself.”

    So I shouldn’t, for example, kill anyone, because of what this act will do to me and my view of myself? Assuming we’re purely material, then doesn’t it follow that other humans, myself included, are mere objects?

    Or maybe we aren’t completely material. Perhaps we do have free will, and capable of self-determination. If so, and if there is no higher will than the will of man, then why can’t I choose to use other people for my own purposes if I want to?

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    We don’t have to wonder whether barbarian Greeks or Vikings thought that murder was wrong. They certainly did–haven’t you guys ever read Homer or the Sagas? Of course, you can muddy the issue by acting as if any act of killing counts as murder. It doesn’t. As a lawyer or a general. There certainly are differences between the legal and moral rules of one people and another, but the notion of man-beasts running wild is an ahistorical idea only suitable for comic books. Anyhow, for slaughter on a mass scale, you need to get organized; and that requires religions or ideologies.

    It’s pretty odd to claim that Christianity is the source of humane morality since many of the moral ideals picked up by that religion have their origin in other religions and in secular philosophy. And of course the evidence that irrational faith promotes social peace is not very good: highly secular West Europe is far less violent than Christ-ridden America. I expect that a serious examination of the evidence would conclude that under some circumstances, revealed religions make the best of a bad situation such as the decline and fall of Rome while at other times they make things very much work.

    The question in the last post (“…if there is no higher will than the will of man, then why can’t I choose to use other people for my own purposes if I want to?”) is extremely peculiar. Of course I can chose to use other people for my own purposes. I can always chose to do wrong. For that matter, if there is a higher will than the will of man, I can still chose to do wrong. Do you really think there is an argument that is guaranteed to turn everybody into saints?

  • Shane Caldwell

    Jim, my friend, you are diligent to be keeping up with this thread. Looking over what has been said, I would regret if I didn’t express my heartfelt affirmation of the good moral beliefs you have been so selflessly defending. I appreciate how strange it might seem to be challenged on “Thou shalt not murder” by advocates of theism! Thank you for hanging in there against our attacks on morality :)

    From #53:
    “On a Thursday morning, I’m not sure I’m up to stating a total philosophy of man and nature in three paragraphs or less.”

    No doubt. By lunch time on Tuesday my omniscience is completely shot for the week :)

    “In order to be a moral individual, one does not need to have a worked-out theory of ethics, let alone a general metaphysics about the ontological status of the soul or the freedom of the will.”

    Fully agreed, at least for most individuals, if not for societies.

    “After all, if I turn out to be wrong in my speculations about the nature of things, I’m not going to be especially surprised; but I’d be very surprised to find out that it was a good thing to kill people.”

    I know the feeling.

    “It seems to me that my existence as a rational human being is tied up with my membership in a community of other rational beings. Because the others are like me in a crucial way, I can’t treat them as mere objects or tools without implicitly degrading myself. This way of looking at things is often associated with Kant’s philosophy, but almost all reflection on right and wrong involves something similar. I don’t think it is one of those edifying ideas it would be pretty to believe. I figure it’s simply right.”

    That is beautifully said. One would have to be highly motivated, I think, to disagree with you here.

    From #49:
    “You might try asking yourself the metaquestion. What would I count as an answer to the question, “Why should I act well?” If you’re not going to accept the homely sorts of reasons that I’ve suggested, just what kind of answers would suit you?”

    Thanks for the invitation. Since it’s now all of Friday morning, I will make just a sketch of what I consider the foundation of Christian ethics, since that is what I try hardest to understand and feel most able to speak for.

    I have come to believe that:
    God exists and is completely holy and good in nature. God means for us to exist and brings about our existence and means for us to know God and enjoy God in this life and here”after”. Every one of us has been estranged from God, which means that we are not completely holy or good. To the extent that we are not holy, God’s nature is in itself a great danger to us and we are “dead in our transgressions,” to use the metaphorical language of the apostle. Rather than changing God’s nature, God somehow condescends to us and makes us holy. In this condescension is shown the grace of God, and it is what the Bible, as a whole, is about. We have not done anything to deserve this grace; but as we have received it, we owe it to one another, because God says so.

    That last statement is what I am offering as a summary of Christian ethics. It is supported by a framework of other beliefs which is by no means self-proving or even without very mysterious and problematic points. But that’s life, I think: there is no getting around the profound mystery of the entire background on which our experience of life takes shape, no matter how that background is construed. What I have tried to challenge is the assumption that a universe without a transcending moral author can be the background for “Thou shalt not murder” and all our other cherished moral dogmas.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    You appreciate that I’m not very interested in moral dogmas, cherished or otherwise.

    To a nonbeliever, the familiar evangelical message is curiously irrelevant to the philosophical question of how one goes about justifying or even identifying moral rules. Are you realy claiming that one needs some sort of theological worldview to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong or are you suggesting something quite different, namely that one needs grace in order to live up to a law that can be discovered independently of revelation or even illumination? If the later, at least you don’t have to go through seven kinds of contortions to pretend that there is something particularly mysterious about routine moral knowledge.

    Of course, I’ve got no business giving out theological advice. That would be like a catholic priest conducting a how-to sex seminar. Either he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or he shouldn’t know what he’s talking about. On the other hand, I read so much Luther and Calvin in my youth, I guess I can fake it pretty well.

  • Vince

    “The question in the last post (“…if there is no higher will than the will of man, then why can’t I choose to use other people for my own purposes if I want to?”) is extremely peculiar. Of course I can chose to use other people for my own purposes. I can always chose to do wrong. For that matter, if there is a higher will than the will of man, I can still chose to do wrong.”

    Of course, I can always choose to do wrong, but what I meant was that if there is no higher will than the will of man, then why can’t my will supply the definition of what is right and what is wrong? Why can’t I be justified in choosing to use other people for my own purposes if I want to?

    “Do you really think there is an argument that is guaranteed to turn everybody into saints?”

    Nope.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    It’s one thing to claim that you like or approve of something and another to claim that it is morally good. The semantics of ordinary language implies that the statement “x is good” has more going for it than “I like it!” In particular, it implies that you should approve of x also. If what you mean is really “I like it!” that’s what you should have said in the first place.

    Now maybe there is, as you imply, no non-arbitrary basis for moral judgment; but if there isn’t such a standard, my will can’t supply one. Neither, by the way, can God, whose actions are necessarly amoral on this irrationalist view of things. The mere “Thou shalt” is a tyrant’s whim, which is why so many theologians have insisted that even for God there is a rational standard of right and wrong independent of the divine will–which is to say, he wills the Law because it’s right. It isn’t right because he wills it. I know that various reformers denied this thesis, Luther in particular. So much the worse for the reformers.

  • Vince

    “Now maybe there is, as you imply, no non-arbitrary basis for moral judgment; but if there isn’t such a standard, my will can’t supply one.”

    Correct. If there is no standard, my will can’t supply one, because no standard exists. Therefore, you can’t claim that my actions are “right” or “wrong” because no standard exists according to which an action may be judged as being right and wrong. Therefore, if a country decides to legalize something which, according to us, is a violation of human rights, nothing wrong is actually happening.

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    It is your claim that there is no standard of right and wrong except the arbitrary will of individuals or gods. That’s not my opinion. I was arguing from your premises, not my own. As endlessly stated above, I think that there are excellent reasons for moral rules that don’t involve elaborate and improbable metaphysical or theological assumptions.

    I really do think that a lot of this has to do with whether you think of morality from the point of view of a child or from the point of view of a responsible adult. For lots of folks, apparently, it is simply unthinkable that morality doesn’t require some authority figure. They’re looking around for a cosmic Daddy they can please with good behavior. Well, when I was a child, I spoke as a child.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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