a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

how to debate William Lane Craig, or not – part 7, objective moral values and duties

with 12 comments

ceci n'est pas Jesus

ceci n’est pas Jesus

Dr Craig’s sixth claim, that his god is the best explanation for objective moral values, is one I want to dwell on at some length, so please sit back in your electrified chairs and enjoy my reflections if you can. But please note that I dwell on the subject for my own interest’s sake, not because I find Dr Craig’s views require much work to overcome – far from it.

I suppose it’s fair to say that when it comes to moral issues, unlike with matters scientific, we all like to consider ourselves experts, and we’re all a little more committed and vociferous, because – it’s personal. So I’ll begin with some personal stuff. From earliest childhood I’ve always felt very emotional about issues of cruelty and injustice. I was often in tears on witnessing kids in my class being bullied – more often than not by teachers. When I was a little boy I read the Hans Andersen story, ‘the little match girl’, a simple but devastating story about a young girl out in the cold snow, trying to sell matches for her impoverished family, afraid to go home without having sold any. She finally dies, out in the cold, on the last night of the year. This tale of unfairness and cruelty and indifference, had me awash with tears at the time, and literally haunted my childhood. I think it’s fair to say that a sense of empathy was well developed in me from an early age. Needless to say, ethical ideas based on the harm principle, such as those articulated by the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, held great appeal for me, but further than this, active moral programs to protect and support individual human beings, such as those enshrined in the universal declaration of human rights and in the many conventions and protocols that have followed from that declaration, are programs that I hold dear.

The point I’m making here is that the starting point for my own moral values was an emotional one, a visceral one, if you like, and not something derived from any ‘higher consciousness’ or reflectivity or rationality.  And I suspect that’s quite a common experience. We don’t generally choose to cry over or be haunted by an injustice. So where do these deep emotional feelings come from? I have absolutely no reason to associate them with a non-material being who has, as far as I’m aware, never communicated anything to me. Nor was I, during my childhood, convinced that everyone would feel the same way as I did if exposed to the story of the little match girl. Some would, I was sure, but others would be cruelly indifferent, and there would be a whole variety of responses along the spectrum. In short, my observations of life, even from an early age, told me that people valued things and experiences very differently from me, and very differently from each other, to a rather bewildering and unpredictable degree.

So, from the fore-going I hope it won’t come as a surprise to you that I don’t believe in objective moral values, but that I’m far from believing that this entails some kind of moral nihilism or amorality. In Dr Craig’s presentation of this argument, he suggests that those who don’t subscribe to objective moral values, by which he means, values that come from a male supernatural being, don’t see anything ‘really’ wrong with the massacre of schoolchildren. Let me put that in another way. He argues that my own deeply felt disgust, shock, anger and pain, when I hear about, and see, played out on my tv screen, those sorts of crimes, is not really real, because it isn’t connected to a non-material creator-protector god, which is how he defines objective morality. I find this a ridiculous argument, as well as an offensive one.

Firstly, Dr Craig’s version of morality is a sham because it exists nowhere. Dr Craig will not be able to give you a single instance of a command from his favoured deity. The decalogue, the ten commandments, were written by men, and though some of them may seem uncontroversial – don’t lie, steal, don’t kill – even these aren’t absolute. A starving person, in my view, would be justified in taking food belonging to another person, who had an abundance of such food, if the alternate was death. I have no difficulty with that. Some people would, as they have the view that private property is sacrosanct. And I could make similar arguments to justify lying, and even killing, under certain special circumstances. To me, there are no absolutes. Other commandments, such as keeping the sabbath day holy, I don’t take at all seriously, because I don’t believe a supernatural being made the world in seven days, though had I lived several thousand years ago, I might well have believed that. And so my morality would have been different then, just as my morality would be different if I were born, on the same day that I actually was born, but in the city of Basra, to a devout Moslem family. My morality, that I hold so dear, and which gives my life so much meaning, is the result of my particular upbringing, my peculiar variety of experiences and influences, the culture that I was born into, my genetic inheritance, and I’m sure there are other factors that I’ve left out. One thing I’m happy to leave out, though, is the command of a deity. I’ve never experienced such a command, and I have no reason to believe anyone else has either.

Now, there are atheists I know who argue for an objective morality, but obviously not grounded in a deity. Personally I find such rational arguments a bit weird, and I’ll say no more about them here, except to make the obvious point that being an atheist doesn’t commit you to any specific moral position, as it’s simply an absence of belief in a deity. That’s all.

What I do want to focus on is the claim that morality without a deity is merely subjective and not really real. That’s to say, without a deity we can do whatever we like and call it morality. Well, that’s not how I feel about morality, and it’s not how morality, and laws relating to morality (and most laws have some sort of moral reasoning behind them) have developed in our increasingly secular society. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is entirely secular, and I think it’s a grand step forward in global human interaction. And it’s more of an effect than a cause, it’s symptomatic of a gradual shift in our attitude to other cultures, in our attitude to race, whether the concept is a valid one or not. In the attitude of men to women, in the attitude of heterosexuals to homosexuals, in our attitude to and respect for children, and in our attitude to and respect for other species on this planet. All of these attitudes have changed drastically in the past 150 years or so. Living in an eternal present as we often do, we can easily overlook how thoroughly transformational these essentially moral developments have been, and they’ve owed nothing whatever to religion, which has generally dragged its heels at the rear. Look, for example, at the Catholic Church.

I’m an avid reader of history, and as such I’ve noted the social changes, particularly in western Europe, that occurred over the past 400 years or so. What has always struck me, in reading about the Thirty Years’ war or the English revolution of the 17th century, or the early slave trade, is how often and regularly God (the Judeo-Christian one) is invoked in the primary documents of those times. God appears on every page, often several times on every page, of every legal document. I’ve described the 17th century, and the centuries before, as a ‘god-besotted age’. And yet the everyday brutality, the callous inhumanity, the cruelty, the viciousness, the inequity, the impoverishment of basic human values of those times, were everywhere on display. If you think you’ve got problems now, transport yourself back to pre-Enlightenment Europe for a wake-up call. Arbitrary rulers, upstart priests, popular revolutionaries, all invoked the divine in order to invest themselves with authority, as still happens today. Think of the divine right of kings, and papal infallibility, and the dear leader and great leaders of North Korea, who promoted themselves as divine. In the past, monarchs regularly passed laws in the name of the god whom they represented. Nowadays, elected politicians pass laws in the name of the people who elected them. It seems to have been a great improvement.

Our morality and our laws are grounded, it seems to me, in our common, but changing, evolving human nature. This is not mere subjectivity. In fact it’s all we have to go on. We don’t make up our own morality as individuals because we’re essentially social beings who rely on each other for our survival and our thriving. We’re empathic because we see ourselves in others and others in ourselves. And we’ve evolved that empathic capacity to embrace species other than our own, which I think is a great step forward.

The theist has no ground for objective moral values because no single moral value, claiming to be objective, has ever been shown to come from a deity. I have no doubt that they’ve all come from human beings.

Written by stewart henderson

March 22, 2013 at 9:55 am

12 Responses

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  1. “Our morality and our laws are grounded, it seems to me, in our common, but changing, evolving human nature.”

    This can only admit that our morality is from the Creator of that humanity.

    Francis Philip

    March 22, 2013 at 10:33 am

    • Thanks for your comment. Why do you spell creator with a capital c? Perhaps you can try offering an argument, or something like evidence, instead of a magisterial pronouncement.


      March 22, 2013 at 11:23 am

  2. Right, and did you stamp your little foot when you wrote that? It’s hardly any wonder that the catholic church is held in such contempt by the intelligentsia of the west.


    March 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    • No. I did not “stamp” my “little foot.” 🙂

      Why not show respect for our Creator by capitalizing the “c”? We do this for the names of our parents and friends and even for strangers we do not know; why not for the Creator? To desire not to do so would seem to (for example) hide a certain contempt for authority – that sort of thinking where one might think, “If I capitalize his name, I will give him power over me, and I am the one who should have the power instead” or “None of us can be greater than the other; therefore, I do not have to obey anyone but myself or my appointed proxy since no one is greater than me,” and so on.

      Or, perhaps it reveals that hidden potential for one human to be really mean to another human. Many try to attribute evil to God, but evil appears to be within the human heart unless one has made room for the presence of God one’s heart.

      Indeed, if one desires to remove all real authority from one’s life, then one may be revealing a deep seated desire to do what one personally desires without regard to whom it might hurt…as long as one’s self is not inconvenienced or limited in one’s desire to do anything, whether good or evil.

      But what is the standard for good or evil if there is no originating authority? Chaos, which would certainly lead to destruction. We have been given many chances to learn that life without God is chaos and evil, but we continue not seem to rest and listen and understand that – too many simply don’t want God in their lives, and we all suffer as a result.

      Francis Philip

      March 22, 2013 at 9:54 pm

      • I reserve my respect for those who have earned it (and there are many of them). If you can provide any evidence for the existence of your specific supernatural being (the god called ‘God’, formerly Yahweh, a Canaanite war-god, and one of the nastiest critters I’ve ever encountered in the annals of fiction) then we will have something to converse about. If not, not.

        Our universe is 13.8 billion years old, and it’s very likely not the only one. The mathematics of super-inflation at our universe’s beginning are compatible with an infinity of universes expanding infinitely from the first point of expansion. And you’re devoting your life to an ‘ancient’ ultra-macho divinity created only a few thousand years ago. Sad, but it’s never too late to grab yourself an education.


        March 22, 2013 at 11:03 pm

      • Bye.

        Francis Philip

        March 23, 2013 at 9:45 am

  3. You’ve been challenged to justify your bizarre and unlikely belief system, and you’ve run away. Is that how you live your life?


    March 23, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    • No. Your words logically seem intended to incite or elicit an emotional response. As such, I can not carry on a discussion. Good bye.

      Francis Philip

      March 24, 2013 at 3:31 am

      • I simply stated some facts. Your god is undeniably male, he came into being only a few thousand years ago, and according to the evidence of the Bible, he is guilty of mass-murder and infanticide, amongst other crimes. He does have a good defence though, in that he has no objective existence, and the Bible is full of historical inaccuracies (there was no flood, no slaughter of the ‘promised land’ peoples etc). I don’t state these things with any great emotion, except a degree of incredulity (and disgust) that people should believe in such entities and then go around acting all high-minded about it. The world – that is the real world – is a really fascinating and exciting place. I want people to look at it, to learn about it, to wonder at it, instead of focusing on supernatural fantasy figures who are designed precisely to be obsessed with humanity. We’re just not that important!


        March 24, 2013 at 9:54 am

      • I recommend that you see a spiritual counselor who actually understands the Scriptures and can explain God to you. You are using your own thoughts (affected by some unfortunate life experiences for which I am sorry) without competent aid (catechesis); it is clear that you do not understand what you read about God – don’t take this as a criticism of you personally. So, why not give it a try and see a Catholic priest. See a competent and wise person for instruction. I think that you will enjoy learning and understanding. Truly 🙂

        Francis Philip

        March 24, 2013 at 9:02 pm

  4. Since you insist on coming back for more, I need to let you know that I always insist on having the last word! I note with amusement your condescending tone, which obviously comes from the Catholic authoritarianism you’ve been steeped in for who knows how long. To say that I should read the Bible under the guidance of a ‘spiritual counselor’, meaning, as you later reveal, a male Catholic priest, is a bit like saying I could never really hope to understand Mein Kampf unless I was guided through it by a member of the Nazi hierarchy. It also reminds me of how ruthless the Catholic Church was in the past in not allowing the Bible to fall into the hands of ‘ordinary people’ who might think for themselves. Remember how John Wycliffe was persecuted for daring to produce a vernacular bible, Later his bones were exhumed and burned in an act of pure vindictiveness, and as a warning to those who might defy the authority of the Church. And there were other such brutal examples. It’s a tradition being continued by the likes of yourself. You might think this is an absurd comparison, but to me the continuity is obvious – you simply couch your intolerance and inflexibility in the more ‘humane’ tones learned from modern secularism, and call it ‘love’. It’s clear from all your writings so far that your concerns are extremely narrow and authoritarian. If everyone was like you, Catholicism and ignorance would hold sway everywhere, and ‘heretics’ would still be tortured and murdered out of ‘love’, according to the example of Augustine of Hippo in his latter years. It must be terribly galling to you that on every measure of health, wealth and happiness, western Europe has progressed, as the sway of the Catholic Church has diminished.
    Anyway, as Jonathon Swift once wrote, you can’t reason someone out of something he hasn’t been reasoned into, and it’s unlikely that you’ve chosen your worldview out of anything remotely resembling logic. It’s my hope to encourage people to think beyond the narrow bounds that shackle the likes of yourself, not by focusing on those ‘self-made manacles’, but by encouraging them to see this astonishing world as it really is, and to marvel at it.



    March 25, 2013 at 9:58 am

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