Should we be moral relativists? (Part 2)

Protagoras

Protagoras

Since antiquity man has pondered the source of our morality. Indeed, early Greek philosopher Protagoras is credited with the controversial phrase, “man is the measure of all things.”  Is this true though?  Is the mind of man, either his personal or societal bent, the measure of moral quality, or are moral laws akin to the laws of physics or mathematics, being a described feature of the universe, rather than a personally or culturally defined development?  While the debate will inevitably carry on between camps that claim moral objectivism is true, and camps that claim relativism is true, one thing it seems we can say for certain is that neither view of morality allows us to say we “should” be moral relativists, as the question necessarily falls on its own sword.

Moral relativism seems to manifest itself either personally or culturally.  What’s deemed good for me and by me, is the “right” thing, or what’s deemed good by my culture is the “right” thing.  Assuming the question, “should we be moral relativists” is meant to apply to a universal “we”, it seems moral relativism itself disqualifies any meaningful answer to such a question.  The question implies an oughtness, as if there is a correct answer to the question about how we should behave.  It seems to presuppose that the answer “yes” may be less morally dubious than the answer “no”, or vice versa.  However, one would need an objective source of morality to affirm or deny the premise in any real sense.  If moral relativism is true, the question, and other questions whose answers imply a proper mode of right conduct by mankind, simply become meaningless.

If moral relativism is true, then to say we “should” behave any particular way becomes nonsensical.  We are permitted to say I “prefer” a certain action, or my culture “prefers” a certain action, but to carry moral relativism any further than preference to a particular action or outcome begins to reek of objectivism.  Further, what one person or culture prefers, cannot be a recipe for what I ought to do.  I am free to reject the preference of anybody else.  Consider a culture in which believing the sacrifice of children to a deity is considered “good”.  On moral relativism, we are impotent to condemn it as wrong.  My personal sensibilities, or the sensibilities of my culture, may find it distasteful, but in no way can that be applied across the personal or cultural boundaries inside which the ideology is promoted.

One might offer a rejoinder that appeals to some seemingly universal recognizable wrongdoing.  For instance, one might say it’s wrong to torture children for fun, and everybody seems to recognize that across cultures. Therefore, the relativist may say, there are just some things we can all agree on, and so we “should” do some things and “should not” do others.  However, on moral relativism we become free to reject any such notion as a fallacious appeal to popularity.  If one person decides killing babies for fun brings them joy, the moral relativist is impotent to condemn that action as intrinsically wrong.  The relativist may impose his current cultural standards upon the stray ideology by force of law, but this is simply a “might makes right” tactic, rather than an appeal to a true state of affairs in the universe where killing babies for fun is always wrong.  The worst any action can be is personally or culturally distasteful.  On this view of reality, an individual or societal quest for power by extermination of opposing people-groups and force, such as the ideology of the Third Reich, is no more or less valid than any other way of living.

In the end, moral relativism does not allow for any “should” or “should not”, as both would imply there are objective moral truth claims that can be applied to all people, places, and times in the history of the universe.  The moral relativist has removed from himself, all grounds for being able to say anybody else ought to be a moral relativist. In short, the question, “should we be moral relativists,” implies a state of affairs in the universe where there is a correct answer to the question.  However, moral relativism itself ensures that there can be no correct answer to questions about how we should behave.  Since the question itself makes an inquiry into how we ought to behave, its self-defeating nature allows it to be safely ignored as incoherent.

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Should we be moral relativists? (Part 1)

I recently attended a conference geared towards those working in information technology in the  higher education sector.  One of the big changes technology is bringing to higher ed is what is known as the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).  The revolution in availability of information to otherwise unreachable parts of the world is making education in whatever one wants to learn not only accessible,  but often free.  In an effort to understand the MOOC better, I enrolled in a free “Intro to Philosophy” couse offered through the University of Edinburgh on Coursera, and found it to be well done, and enjoyable.

One thing that interested me with regards to an intro to philosophy course though, was the dodging, nearly complete avoidance of the conversation about God, or how the introduction of a deity into philosophy changes the conversation.  Longstanding debates, like the proper view of moral values and duties, become easily solvable.  Modern philosophy, at least at the University of Edinburgh, seems to consider the God debate settled though.  Or perhaps the topic is just too complex for an introductory course.

In any case, part of the course involved selecting from a list of questions,  and writing a 750 word essay in response.  If you’ve read any of my other ramblings, you’ll know morality is a topic that interests me, so I chose the question, “Should we be moral relativists?”

There are two major camps on the source of morality.   Essentially,  one camp that claims it is relative to us, either individuals or cultures. Morals are defined by people.  This is relativism.   The other camp claims morality is a feature of the universe,  like the laws of physics. Morals are unchaging, and can only be discovered or described by people, but people don’t give them their definition.  This is objectivism.

It is an interesting debate, who’s outcome I believe seriously affects the way we live.  Whether you’ve thought about it or not, you are either a realativist (of some stripe), or an objectivist.  Think about it.  Which are you and why?  If you consider yourself a relativist,  on what grounds do you condemn behavior you consider morally wrong? If you consider yourself an objectivist, what source do you cite for moral “laws”?  In both cases, you’re trying to determine what gives an action its moral properties,  if any.

In any case, after the MOOC wraps up, I’ll post my essay answering the question “Should we be moral relativists?” 

Shove it, Cosmos!

I love the cosmos.  I really do.  It’s quite an amazing place.  I love it so much that when the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT offered an evening of star gazing in Yellowstone National Park using a fleet of high powered telescopes, my family and I packed up the tent and braved the cold Wyoming air to get a close up view (relatively speaking) of planets and galaxies far, far away.

Prior to getting to peer into the heavens with the guidance and equipment of some amazing volunteers from the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society, a lecture was given by an astronomer positing that YNP could well be a good representation of what Mars may have previously looked like.  It was an interesting presentation, which ended by posing a question about the possibility of life on other Earth-like planets located elsewhere in the universe.   The observation was made that a lot of conditions would have to be met in order for another life-permitting planet to exist.  The Earth seems to be quite special in this regard, given the number of “just-so” conditions that it meets to make life possible.  It seemed at least somewhat unlikely to this man of science that another planet might exist which would permit life, especially intelligent life, and thus there is the distinct possibility that planet Earth is one of a kind.  It followed then, in this gentleman’s estimation, that we should, therefore, respect and take care of the Earth.

Why?  A naturalistic bent seemed implicit in this presentation, and in that context I see no objective reason why anybody should take care of the planet, or anything else for that matter.  If the universe is an accidental mess of meaningless matter, on what real grounds should I care about the Earth or any other random ball of rock? If the universe is without meaning, my life is without meaning, and all other lives are without meaning, then I fail to see why I should care about any particular planet’s uniqueness. There’s nothing on a naturalistic worldview that compels me to care about anything.

This seems absurd though. Most people seem to have an intrinsic sense of obligation to protect not only other people, but other special collections of matter, such as the Earth, as well. On a decidedly Christian worldview this makes sense. Biblically speaking, humanity has been gifted with Creation by God, and has been charged with being a good steward of that gift. In this instance, among others, the Christian worldview seems to have significanly more explanatory power to describe reality than does naturalism.

If you talk me into a naturalistic worldview, you simultaneously talk me into an objectively meaningless existence. In that case, the cosmos can shove it! Seeing how this sort of meaningless existence doesn’t seem to comport with reality though, I think I’ll continue to appreciate the stars, refrain from littering, and thank God for the beauty of places like Yellowstone National Park.

The Almighty Big Box Store

Wal-MartFor those of you who know me, you know my life has been in flux as of late.  A job change, along with a move from Washington state to Montana, selling a house, trying to find a new place to live, and splitting up from the rest of my family for a few weeks seem to have put a lot of pressure on my sense of security.  For the past week I’ve felt somewhat jobless and homeless, though never in need of income or shelter.  It’s funny where, even as Christians, we derive our sense of security though.  I’ve been in a foreign town in a foreign state for all of 36 hours now.  I find it a little scary and lonely without my wife and kids by my side.  I know, intellectually speaking, that I ought to derive my sense of security from the creator of the universe who can both give and take away.  However, in practice, it seems that I fail miserably at this.

First, it is probably no surprise that my wife is my crutch.  Not crush mind you (although she is that too), but the one I lean on for all manner of support.  From friendship, to financial planning, to fashion advice, if you take her away from me I become somewhat paralyzed.  I can overcome these things, but I feel lost without her.  Now, in my defense I could make a biblical case that this sort of leaning on each other in a marriage is a good thing.  Hopefully there are some things where I am a crutch for her as well.  We rely on each other, but answer to God first.

However, I discovered today, that it turns out that big box stores offer some odd measure of security for me as well.  I walked into a Walmart this morning and immediately noticed I felt somewhat relieved.  Things were suddenly familiar again.  That sense of nothing making any sense seemed to fade a little bit.  It felt somewhat like home.  The reason, I suppose, is that no matter where I go, places like Walmart and Costco look pretty much the same.  I literally thought to myself something like, “This Walmart is oddly comforting.”  They say home is where the heart is, and apparently the heart is at Walmart ($19.99 in the Shoes and Accessories department I think).

After deriving some sense of comfort in troubled times from the almighty Walmart, I came to the sudden realization that I could easily be compared to those foolish people in Exodus 32.  My wife (Moses) was back in Washington (up on the mountain) and in my panic and insecurity I appealed to Sam Walton (Aaron) to build me a Walmart (golden calf) to which I might appeal in my time of uncertainty.  Luckily I realized it before I got to the part where I was burning sacrifices before Walmart.

Once I realized it, I was able to somewhat refocus my sense of security back on God where it belonged.  Fortunately, through Christ I have a path to forgiveness for such corruptness, and can even chuckle about it.  Some people say “God is a crutch” as a means of defaming theists as being weak minded.  However, with the exception of the malice with which the comment is generally intended, I agree with those people.  God is a crutch.   We all have our crutches; those things that provide peace and security in our lives.  For some it is things like successful careers, big houses, fine automobiles, stacks of money, the dream of power, lust, or popularity.  For the follower of Jesus of Nazareth the pinnacle of security, upon which all other securities rest, should be the triune God, but is it?

When life gets complicated and uncertain, what is your crutch?

Secular Morality: Barfing Up A Moral Landscape

Yes, I’m still here.  I bet you thought that you’d gotten rid of me.  In my last post I referred you to an article on secular morality that a friend of mine had passed on to me after a discussion about the basis for moral judgments.  I began by dispatching the false dichotomy the article leads with in an attempt to establish that morality based in God is no less arbitrary than that based in a secular worldview.  Please read my previous post to understand why this is not the case.

Now, on to the task at hand, which is an attempt to understand how morality can be objective in the context of secular naturalism. The article tries to get going by asking the questions, “How should unbelievers behave? Where does our understanding of morality ultimately come from? How do we know that our standards are correct in a meaningful and universal sense?” These are great questions! How then, do we began to answer these questions? The article continues, “…if we approach the question from a humanistic, scientific stand point, atheists ought to agree that there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.”

Say what now?

I seem to be being told, that in order to conclude where “oughts” (statements about morality) come from, that we ought to agree there should be rational standards. This is absurd though. I see no reason why atheists ought to agree, unless there is some transcendent atheist herdsman that sets the moral standard for all people. The statement that atheists (or anybody else) “ought” to do anything is the very thing that is in question, and so at the outset this article commits the logical fallacy known as “begging the question“. This circular form of argument gets stuck in an infinite loop that usually goes something like this:

Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.
Me: Doesn’t whether or not there are objective moral conclusions impact whether we “ought” to do anything, like agree on rational standards?
Atheist: No. We can know some things are right and some things are wrong?
Me: How?
Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.

Unfortunately, a claim cannot use its own conclusion to justify itself, and so this article falls on its sword before it ever gets underway, by appealing to a sense of “ought” prior to establishing that such a thing can exist, or where it comes from. The fact of the matter is that either moral principles are universal laws that we discover, like the laws of mathematics or physics, or they’re merely social conventions that we’ve created for ourselves. In the event they are social conventions, there is no “ought” involved. There remains only the opinion based product of myself or my society. In this case, I have no grounds to judge the actions of other people or other societies. If another society believes nirvana is achieved by using babies for skeet shooting, that is their prerogative. I can object on the subjective grounds that I don’t like it because it is mean, but I have no objective standard on which to base my assessment.

In Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, he lays out a much more thorough case for an objective morality without God. Harris defines his so-called “moral landscape” as, “…real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.” Again, from the outset, the case for secular morality lies within the human condition. Though eloquent, Harris’s definition of morality holds water no better than the aforementioned article. The Moral Landscape makes its case using moral language with words like “well-being”, “should”, “right”, and “good”. All of these words are meaningless though, unless something gives them meaning. Harris dodges the problem of question begging by instead relying on the equivocation of these words so that they are synonymous with the promotion of human life. This secular humanism is arbitrary speciesism though. On naturalism I see no objective reason to think protecting human animals is any more right than protecting aardvarks or cockroaches. Surely you can assign subjective rightness to the flourishing of human life, simply on the grounds that you are one of them, but why stop there? Why not use you’re nationalism to promote an ideal society of whatever sub-class of humans you think is superior to others (WWHD)?

Theism presents the solution to this problem though, by recognizing a transcendent moral law giver outside of creation that provides a universal moral law. People seem to nearly universally recognize and affirm that human life is important, but unlike a secular humanist’s worldview, Christianity in particular has objective reasons for elevating humans over aardvarks or cockroaches. God, as the creator of all things, gives mankind special position in the creation. Without a transcendent moral law, all morality is reduced to individual and societal opinions. Sam Harris can use science to tell me that certain brain states equate to unhappiness. However, science is powerless to say in any meaningful sense why I ought not put you in these unhappy brain states.  It is not his science (as he would have you believe), but his philosophy that makes the claim we ought to look out for the well-being of people. This is his opinion…and we simply ought to agree with his moral conclusions.

Just to be clear, I am NOT saying that the atheist cannot be moral, I’m simply saying that on atheism there is no objective grounds on which to base the concept of morality.  In a secular worldview it seems it must be admitted that “oughts” and “ought nots” are no more meaningful than in any other part of the animal kingdom. If we really think that an objective morality exists though, and that things like “human rights” are real things, then we must look outside ourselves to find the source, for it is only something beyond mankind that can apply universally to mankind. Once we identify the source of moral laws and duties outside ourselves, only then can we say with confidence that we ought not eat our babies like guppies do, and this is more than just mere personal opinion or cultural convention!

Books Make Me Barf: Cold-Case Christianity

“The answers are available; you don’t have to turn off your brain to be a believer. Yes, it is possible to become a Christian because of the evidence rather than in spite of the evidence. Many of us have done just that. ~J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity

I’ve always been somewhat of a skeptic in that I have a tendency to question things. I’ve said this before, but I guess I’ll say it again. I’m interested in believing true things, not necessarily popular things.  Subjective feelings are not, necessarily, good indicators of truth.  Moreover, emotion is certainly inadequate, in most cases, to allow us to make a compelling case to somebody else for our beliefs. We must learn to responsibly follow and present objective evidence if we’re to compete in the marketplace of ideas. The good news is that we all seem to be predisposed to follow evidence.  We use evidence to make decisions all the time without even thinking about it.  I look out the window every morning and, based on the evidence, decide if I should wear a jacket today or not.  In fact, I may just use circumstantial evidence to conclude it is raining outside when I see one of my kids come inside wet.  Sure it’s possible that they may have just been playing in the sprinkler, but if it is winter time and they’re fully clothed, I can infer the most reasonable conclusion is that the weather is inclement.  Evidence is important for forming our beliefs about reality.  We should all be skeptics to some degree, having sound reasons for why we believe what we believe.  Enter J. Warner Wallace.

J. (Jim) Warner Wallace is a vocal atheist turned vocal Christian apologist.  Having worked in law enforcement for many years, Wallace is a cold-case homicide detective in the Los Angeles County area. You may have seen his work featured on Dateline. In his recently released book “Cold-Case Christianity“, he tackles the case of the historicity of the life of Jesus using the techniques of his trade, applying the same principles he uses to solve cold-case homicides where witnesses are gone, physical evidence is slight, and it is solid circumstantial cases that bring the truth to light.  Detective Wallace takes you through his own journey from atheist to follower of Jesus of Nazareth via careful evaluation of the historical evidence, training you to think critically about things like evaluating witnesses, conspiracy theory, and the chain of custody in evidence gathering.

With this book J. Warner Wallace makes a significant contribution to the defense of the reasonableness of the Christian faith.  In recent years the vocal “new atheist” movement has been aggressively attacking religion, and specifically Christianity, with a newfound hostility, often claiming that the enterprise of reason stands solely with their position.  Tearing down strongholds and demolishing arguments against the knowledge of God, Cold-Case Christianity makes it abundantly clear that a belief in the Biblical text is not only reasonable, but even more reasonable than any of the other ancient documents which we accept at face value in our pursuit of knowledge about the past.  When evaluated objectively, as any good jury member with an open mind ought to, the historical case for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is successfully prosecuted by J. Warner Wallace.  It is only if one comes to the case with the pre-existing conclusion that supernatural events can’t happen that the case can be dismissed.

Undoubtedly, the charge against Wallace from some Christians will be that he takes the “faith” out of faith (by the way, fideism makes me barf).  They’ll likely say that this evidential approach to Biblical investigation puts God on trial.  I’d ask these naysayers to refer to their Bibles in places like 1 Peter 3:15, 1 Thessalonians 5:21, 2 Corinthians 10:5, and Jude 1:3 (among others).  The Biblical authors were clear that reasoning with people and defending faith in Christ was a virtue, not a vice.  J. Warner Wallace has taken these mandates seriously, carefully arranging a book that is useful to both Christians and non-Christians alike in their pursuit of understanding.

Not only does Wallace build a successful case for the reliability of the eyewitness gospel accounts, but he does it in a way that is appealing to any fan of the whodunit genre of books, movies, and television shows.  Weaved into J. Warner Wallace’s investigation of the biblical accounts, are real world examples from his cold-cases that are used to reinforce the subject matter of each chapter.  Cold-Case Christianity is one of the most accessible apologetics books I’ve had the pleasure of reading.  This is a book anybody can, and should, pick up and read not only to educate themselves, but for the pure enjoyment of it as well.  Kudos to J. Warner Wallace who has put together a book that is both educational and fun!  Thorough, winsome, and entertaining, this is the first book that should be recommended to any skeptic who levels a charge against the reliability of the gospel accounts or the historical figures that penned them.