Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Godless Basis of Authentic Morality: A Response to A.J. Ellis

In the many online discussions I engage in with Christian theists, the argument for God's existence that is both used more than any other and employed with the most confidence is by far the argument from "objective morality." This concept of morality is invoked as evidence for God; their reasoning is that if there is an absolute standard of good and evil that is grounded in something outside ourselves, it must therefore be grounded in something transcendent or supernatural. One self-described Christian apologist I have known for some time via Facebook heavily favors this particular argument, and my recent discussions (which I hope will turn into a formal debate) with him on the subject have inspired me to address his points in the present essay.

On his online blog, entitled Musings From the Empire, A.J. Ellis describes himself as "An occasional writer and Christian constitutional libertarian apologist." On a recent discussion thread on my Facebook profile, A.J. had the following to say about morality and the God hypothesis:
The existence of objective moral truths (everyone has 'em, though we may not agree where that line would be drawn) is one of the evidences for the existence of God.

First, in obeying God, a person is simply conforming with the final reality (which is God,) instead of beating our heads against it. If God exists, (God meaning the final authority and creator of the universe,) then what He says is true, including moral truths.

Humanists always assume some 'higher' moral framework than God, to say that 'God is unjust,' but by what authority or framework can they make that claim?

By what standard do you say that God is unjust?

Ahh, but wait, you assume the Christian standard of morality given by this God in order to attack his justice, all the while ignoring certain things that go along with God's existence (such as His necessary claim to ownership and ultimate judicial authority.)

I say show me how God is objectively unjust.

In a separate thread, in response to challenges I had put forth to his statements, he writes,
Why is it [human freedom and dignity] a 'right?!' What makes any of these otherwise silly moralistic things 'standards?!?' How do you get an 'ought' (without which morality is NOTHING, such as your assertion of 'rights') from what 'is?' (material things which do not speak.) I remember the statement about 'avoiding pain and being happy' being 'better' for people, but why in the world should that matter at all to anyone if they can get away with it? Why is it 'better' in the first place?

Although I'm sure you've heard the question before, I'm very interested as to how humanism can get or ground moral obligations, or an 'ought,' based on your woldview [sic], and also wonder if there's a humanistic example of an objective or transcendant [sic] moral obligation that exists.

On a surface level, A.J. Ellis is correct: If an objective moral standard does exist, then it must come from somewhere. But how does it then follow from this that objective moral standards come from God? God's existence would remain undemonstrated even if objective moral values were shown to exist. In other words, his implication is wrong. The fact of the matter is that A.J.'s argument is worthless because it assumes what it sets out to prove: To paraphrase A.J.: "We are all imbued with a moral sense, by which we have the capacity to judge that God is unjust in the first place. Therefore, all people are possessed of a moral sense which could only have come from God. Therefore, God exists." The argument is essentially that if one understands anything about good and evil, then that person must have standards of some kind, and that standard must have come from God. How does "God" follow from the fact that people with an understanding of good and evil employ standards?

Allow me to illustrate the vacuousness of this argument with a question directed specifically at A.J.: Do you consider chocolate to be delicious? Think carefully how you answer; how do you know what "delicious" means? Clearly, you have a standard by which you judge that which is delicious and what is not delicious. This standard you have is the reason you will gladly accept a chocolate bar that I give you, but will reject, say, a steaming dog turd in disgust. Now, if your standard is what informs you that chocolate is more delicious than dog turds, then there must be a source by which to measure how delicious things are. Is it not therefore obvious that this source must be God? After all, by what possible standard can you objectively discern that which is delicious from that which is not, if that standard is not the most delicious thing in the universe? Therefore, we can conclude that God, the Ultimate Tasty Thing, exists.

But why end there? Literally any existential abstraction can be ranked in some hierarchy that descends from a "source" or standard. For instance, who is the best gay sex partner? For any given homosexual man, there is obviously going to be some good gay sex and some bad gay sex, with a continuum in between. How, exactly, are we to rank gay sex along that scale? A standard is obviously required to do this. What does this observation make God out to be? As we can see, one should be very careful about who is established as the ultimate standard for everything, because then he/she/it has to actually become the Ultimate Standard for Everything. Such a being would also by logical necessity have to be the ultimate evil as well. Think about that, A.J.

The underlying point of these thought experiments is this: The standard you have of what is delicious and what is not has the potential to instill in your mind a Platonic idea of what the most delicious thing in the universe might taste like. But does it then follow that such a thing exists? Not necessarily. If I were to give you a great amount of food and asked you to rank the food items based on how delicious they are, your personal tastes will objectively determine how you rank them. You will end up with a "most delicious item" and a "least delicious item" according to this personal taste by which you objectively rank the food. But is the "most delicious item" on your list the most delicious food item that exists or could possibly exist in the universe? The most likely answer is no. It is much more probable that at some future point after ranking your food gifts, you will encounter new food that becomes, according to your personal tastes, your new "most delicious item." However, the theoretical possibility that there could exist the Most Delicious Thing in the Universe does not mean that such a thing actually does exist.

The only thing required to conceive of a variety of moral standards is imagination. As humans, we can imagine situations or circumstances that are better or worse than what we are currently experiencing. For example, we can easily imagine a world devoid of pain and suffering, or at the very least a world devoid of unnecessary pain and suffering. Does our ability to imagine such a world mean that such a world actually exists? But we do not even need to go that far with our imagination in order to demonstrate the fallacy of claiming that the existence of human standards implies a transcendent Ultimate Standard floating somewhere in the ether. As humans, we imagine better and worse scenarios in relation to what we currently experience all the time, often sub-consciously. For example, if we are driving along a rural highway and our vehicle gets hit by loose gravel on the road, we may instinctively think It is a good thing this car is not being hit with bigger rocks! As long as anybody has the ability to imagine better and worse scenarios, a scale can be mentally constructed. And all the evidence we have concerning the nature of ethics and morality screams that they are an entirely human contrivance. Ethics and morality are sociological constructs that humans use in order to efficiently function in a cooperative society. Ethics and morality are byproducts of the same system of mental processes by which we rank foods or how clean the air smells on a given day. We engage in qualitative and quantitative analysis all the time, and none of it requires a divine author of any kind.

The Counter-Argument From Morality
There is in fact an important counter-argument to be made. As a Christian, A.J. Ellis claims that his God is the divine author of morality. He knows that God is good, because the book he allegedly inspired says that he is good. Such reasoning is, of course, circular. But even setting that detail aside for now, when Christians read through the Bible and point out passages to say, "Look, here we see God doing something good," they are making a judgment of God's described actions. Based on their own conception of morality, they deem a given action attributed to God as being good and not evil. If they did not already have a notion of morality ingrained in them by the influence of functioning societies, there is no conceivable way they could judge whether it is God who is evil or Satan who is evil.

Furthermore, if the God of the Bible truly is the Standard and Source of all goodness, why is it that Christians cannot readily point to highly questionable passages as examples of God's goodness? There are numerous instances in the Bible which speak of the the Israelites committing genocide at the direct command of God, and raping and pillaging indiscriminately with God's blessing and endorsement. Why do we not see many Christians pointing to such passages as examples of God exercising his perfectly good character? Of course, it is true that some do; there are Christians who will say that what God ordered his chosen people to do was morally upright and good, because the people being wiped out and terrorized "deserved it." However, it is also true that Christians rarely if ever hold such narratives up as their best example of God's goodness. In other words, they realize they have to explain such passages. But again, if the God of the Bible truly is the objective Source of all moral goodness recognized by humans, such passages should not require apologetic explanations or excuses. God's morally good character as described in the pages of Scripture should be unambiguously clear and obvious to everyone, and the fact that it is not unambiguous throws a wrench into any characterization of the biblical God as the Source of all goodness, from whence all humans derive their own standards.

A.J. charges me with assuming the Christian standard of morality given by his God in order to attack his justice. This is nothing more than evasive rhetoric that attempts to circumnavigate or avoid any commitment to declaring the morally dubious biblical passages as morally good, which consistency would require A.J. and apologists like him to declare. To cut past this evasive maneuver, I address this question to A.J. himself: Are you saying that, for example, God's act of flooding the entire earth, killing everybody except for eight people, was morally good?

Most Christians will most likely answer yes to this question, but only because they are forced to by the dictates and assertions of their holy book. I contend that their own moral compass informs them that this is not good or just, and that they recognize this in the inner recesses of their conscience. But they try to suppress this recognition when they insist that they must agree with what the Bible says, and specifically when they call this and other instances of God-ordered atrocities a "necessary evil." The term "necessary evil," when used as a rationalization in this way, allows the apologist to redefine "evil" such that the classification becomes meaningless when applied to God. In this view, evil is simply misunderstood good, because God's plan must be brought to fruition no matter what the consequences are or who is hurt along the way.

This response to the "necessary evil" line of rationalization is reminiscent of an argument put forth by the 18th-century philosopher David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume likens the "evil as a means to an end" justification to an architect showing off a house that is so lacking in refinements as to inflict upon the prospective homeowner the most unpleasant living conditions. The architect could argue that this house is actually a wonderful, high-quality house, because if anything about the house's original condition was changed or modified, the result would not be a better house, but a still worse one. On the basis of this, the architect could suggest that the house is perfect as it is. Of course, the reasonable and justified response to such an architect is obvious:
Did I shew you a house or palace, where there was not one apartment convenient or agreeable; where the windows, doors, fires, passages, stairs, and the whole economy of the building, were the source of noise, confusion, fatigue, darkness, and the extremes of heat and cold; you would certainly blame the contrivance, without any further examination. The architect would in vain display his subtilty, and prove to you, that if this door or that window were altered, greater ills would ensue. What he says may be strictly true: the alteration of one particular, while the other parts of the building remain, may only augment the inconveniences. But still you would assert in general, that, if the architect had had skill and good intentions, he might have formed such a plan of the whole, and might have adjusted the parts in such a manner, as would have remedied all or most of these inconveniences. His ignorance, or even your own ignorance of such a plan, will never convince you of the impossibility of it. If you find any inconveniences and deformities in the building, you will always, without entering into any detail, condemn the architect.

These analogies, when applied to the Bible's conception of God, illustrate the emptiness of the "necessary evil" rationalization. If the biblical God had skill and good intentions, he might have formed such a plan of the whole, and adjusted the parts in such a manner, as would have made the committing of atrocities to remedy problems completely unnecessary. His failure in that regard should never convince anybody of the impossibility of a better plan. The inconveniences and deformities of the universe we find ourselves in serve as evidence that the God spoken of in the Bible is nothing more than the product of human imagination, a projection and extension of human traits onto an imagined untouchable entity whose alleged actions reflect humanity's own failings to live at peace with one another. However, if the biblical God does exist, we are justified in condemning him as unjust, and in doing so we do not assume the standard of morality given by this God.

Lest any Christian apologist employs the rhetorical maneuver of creating a distinction between the relevancy of the Old Testament versus the New Testament, I point out that the New Testament notion of eternal punishment for finite crimes is evil and unjust. In fact, this notion stands as the greatest example of the evil and injustice of the God character, more so than any of the atrocities described in the Old Testament as endorsed or commanded by God combined. There are many Christians whose own moral compass informs them that this is indeed evil and unjust. They are the ones who typically say they do not believe in eternal punishment or in the concept of hell. They say that the believers are given eternal life in heaven and all non-believers simply cease to exist. In other words, their own moral standards, which they do not get from an authoritarian deity, inspires them to change what the Bible actually says. But I submit that offering any kind of reward based on belief and not on action is just unjust as the doctrine of eternal conscious torture. Preferential treatment for invalid reasons, which describes perfectly the doctrine of conditional immortality, is just as evil.

My two-pronged question to Christian scholars and laypersons who are squeamish about the idea of eternal torture is similar to the question I posed to A.J. above: 1) Suppose God did prescribe eternal torture for non-believers in the afterlife, unambiguously and clearly. Would that prescription of eternal torture for finite crimes become good simply because the deity said so? 2) Since you as a Christian believe that hell does not exist, please explain the words attributed to the person whom you believe is God in the flesh. I suspect the answers to the first question (which is essentially a form of the Euthyphro Dilemma), would be mixed; some would say yes, and some would say no. The latter group clearly has the superior moral grounding. As for the former group, I personally do not see how they get around the actual words they believe are attributed to Jesus when he speaks of the fires of hell. Even the Pope (Benedict XVI) a few years ago made a public statement to the effect that hell exists and is eternal.

In the end, the Bible is shown to be a big book of multiple choice, from which Christians pick and choose their theological and social beliefs. This demonstrates that A.J. Ellis grossly oversimplifies matters when he claims that if God exists, then what he says is true, including moral "truths." The fact of the matter is that as humans, we have our own moral standards that we apply to our interpretation of the Bible and other holy books, standards which operate independently of any alleged deity and which are informed entirely by social and cultural influences. The standard by which we can say God is unjust is the same standard that has allowed us to survive as a species and form cooperative societies, and these include notions of justice, fairness, compassion, empathy, etc. Humanism can realize and ground moral obligations in this way; we can get an ought from an is based on what we recognize to have sustained us throughout history.

As for a "humanistic example of an objective or transcendent moral obligation that exists," our secular standards of morality are no more "transcendent" than our standards as they apply to food, gay sex, how clean the air smells to us, or how much gravel can strike our vehicle before investing in a new paint job. But something does not need to be "transcendent" in order to be reasonably applied in the real world. Morals are not transcendent, because morality does not pre-date either consciousness or experience. And because no two experiences are exactly alike, it makes little sense to speak of morality in objective terms. It makes more sense to say that there exists a moral consensus, a consensus that we disregard at our peril.


  1. As always buddy, you're blogs make me feel stupid for ever trying to tackle this issue. Great insights and deployment of ideas!

  2. An even more succinct takedown of the notion of God as an absolute "objective" moral standard is that it still leaves the Christian in the lurch of having to explain what moral standard they used to determine God's absolute "objective" moral standards were in fact moral. Christians still have to have some notion of right and wrong to discern that the moral precepts they claim come from God are right ones and not wrong ones. Otherwise, they're a promoting a system of "morals" that's really nothing more than authoritarianism. So in making the decision that God's morals are actually moral, what standard are they applying? Simply a tautological one, in which God's morals are the ultimate standard because they come from God? Or must they make a personal value judgment, based upon their own experience of life and the notion that actions have consequences and those can be observed, which involves at least some degree of subjectivity?

    Then yeah, there's that darn Euthyphro.

    Nice reductio ad absurdam of the whole "ultimate standard" thing, anyway. Never quite heard it put like that, and will steal it with impunity in the future.

  3. Hey, great writing, as always!

    So, don't take this as negative criticism at all, but I thought I'd offer a few suggestions for marketing your blog a little better.

    For starters, I've heard in several places thaton unspoken rule for blog posts is that they should not exceed 500 words, and if they do, the topic should be posted in installments. It's just easier on the readership

    Also, I think you should include a "donate" tag somewhere in this blog, just for shits and giggles. :)

  4. I reject outright any such objective standard of a 500 word blog post limit... not just because I am guilty of exceeding this my self but many successful and popular blogs do so to no perceivable ill effect :)

    Great post, really enjoyed it.