Extreme Divine Command Theory

This post is related to my previous one on morality.  The following is a comment by a theist on another blog that I saw a while back (here’s the link to the comment):

THE God, who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth, is Himself the standard by which ALL things are measured. That means when he commands Joshua to kill every man, women, child and beast in Canaan that that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. It means that when he causes Israel to eat their own children as reported in Jeremiah 19 that that is PERFECTLY holy righteous, just and good. It means that if He has decreed all of the horrific human misery, suffering and death in all of history that that is PERFECTLY holy righteous, just and good. It means that if He has decreed the existence of billions of human beings for the expressed purpose of casting them into the lake of fire in judgement for sin that He also decreed that that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. It means that if He has purposed that everything we consider to be pointless evil, immorally unjust and unthinkably unfair shall be so ordered by divine mechanisms known only to Himself, to His own glory for reasons sufficient unto Himself that that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good.

 

It also means that His not caring one bit how you (or I) feel about that is most assuredly PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. I sleep like a baby knowing that every time I hear about some gut wrenching blood curdling act of barbaric depravity that my Father God has from eternity seen fit to assign purpose to it that is PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just and good. IF IT WERE MY OWN FAMILY? You ask? Most ESPECIALLY then would I fall to my knees and worship Him knowing that evil has NOT triumphed, but that a PERFECTLY holy, righteous, just, good AND LOVING God who calls me brother, bride and son though I myself belong in that lake of fire will receive honor and glory by my praising His name while the world loses it’s collective mind. EveryTHING and everyONE belongs to HIM. His exaltation and glory IS the purpose for all that is. No more PERFECTLY purpose could ever exist.

I don’t think any of my theist readers hold this viewpoint, but obviously there are people out there who do.  How many I’m not sure, but I wonder if it is higher than we would expect in some parts of the world.

I’d like to hear what my readers think of the above quoted comment.  Please offer your thoughts no matter what your worldview is.

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Morality Without Gods

Evolution_MoralsA while back I wrote a series of posts on morality and I want to attempt to tie some things up as well as respond to some common things I see people say online about non-theistic morality (some of which came up in my post on meaning).  I’ve only scratched the surface on this subject so I’m sure some of the details are not quite right.

Different Meta-ethical Views

While it’s much more complicated, in general I like to categorize the different meta-ethical views into the following:

  1. Supernatural Moral Realism (one example is Divine Command Theory): the favorite position for the theist, although I’ve found it interesting that some theists reside in the other 3 categories (mainly the next one) usually in addition to this category.
  2. Non-Natural Moral Realism: some atheist philosophers believe that there are moral properties which exist necessarily somehow as brute facts of reality (kind of like the law of non-contradiction). Shelly Kagan, Erik Wielenberg, Russ Shafer-Landau (video lecture), Michael Martin, and Keith Parsons are just some atheists who have expressed this idea. In this clip atheist Shelly Kagan describes his own views:

    You can see the debate where this clip is taken from here.  I highly recommend this debate to anyone interested in the topic of morality as it relates to atheism.  Kagan’s 20 minute opening is especially well thought out.
    Richard Swinburne and Robert Merrihew Adams are examples of theists who agree that there are moral properties which exist apart from gods.
  3. Natural Moral Realism: what I like to call practical moral realism, although that’s probably not precise.  I’ll actually use a quote from a theist I met online to capture this:

    I can’t be the only one here who notices that the just world is a world where I can be happy whereas the unjust world is a world where I could only be miserable. If I’m treated unjustly, I’ll be unhappy; and if I’m stuck in a situation where I must behave unjustly in order to get by — I’ll be unhappy about that!

    The idea here is that there are moral truths that are “normative” (i.e. true for everyone) due to the fact that all humans share the same desire for contentment, and having values such as integrity and compassion help us realize that desire. Massimo Pigliucci, Richard Carrier (video lecture), Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Sam Harris are all atheists who fall in this camp (with variances among their views).

  4. Moral Anti-realism: the view that there are no objective moral values.  Nietzsche is commonly referenced in this category.  Some modern proponents are Sharon Street, Richard Joyce, and Michael Ruse.  It’s very rare to find theists in this category but there are a small percentage.

And these 2 diagrams show you that meta-ethics is even more complicated than I’ve made it out to be:

metaethics-flowchart-smaller metaethics

So Where Do I Stand?

I see all 4 options above as possibilities and I’m fine with all of them.  Personally, if there is a god or force or whatever that truly represents pure goodness and kindness (the parts that at least seem to be universal properties contained in that) then I’m all for it.  If it is a personal being then it’s more than welcome in my home for a cup of tea or whatever it likes to partake in.  I’d love to work with it to help make the world a better place to live in.  If living in my heart floats it’s boat then have at it.  I’d love for it to do kind things through me and make me a better, more loving and caring person.  It’s just that some versions of this god as described by the traditional monotheistic religions do not line up with what is commonly understood as goodness, and the world also seems to operate as if it is a godless one.

I explained here why non-natural moral realism seems more plausible to me than supernatural moral realism.  But if you forced me to bet on which of the 4 options is true I’d probably say it’s some mix of 3 and 4 which I sort of talked about here.  This seems most closely matched to Massimo Pigliucci’s views.

Now pick whatever meta-ethical viewpoint you want from the above list – it doesn’t matter which one represents reality to me. Either way genocide, slavery, an eternal hell, pedophilia, rape, etc. all go against my moral senses.  The moral sense can come from gods, rationality, or evolutionary factors, but again it doesn’t matter.  The moral sense is there and no matter what, there are pragmatic reasons for following them.

Common Objections

– Our moral senses cannot be explained without God

There seems to be some evidence against this.  Read this.

– Atheists have no right to make any claims about right or wrong

First of all, watch the video above again to see why this is misguided.  It may be a more valid objection to replace the word “atheists” with “moral anti-realists”.

PunchIf a moral anti-realist is being punched in the face for no reason at all, do you expect them to respond with “that’s cool, I don’t believe in objective morality, so if you want to punch me I have no criticism of it”?  Obviously, being in pain, they would have something to say about it.  Obviously they could say “that hurts”, and “I don’t like that” without contradicting their anti-realist stance.  However, If they said “that’s wrong” it would begin to sound contradictory to their beliefs.  I have a caveat here though – it’s not contradictory if by saying “that’s wrong” they simply mean that it’s wrong in the sense that the majority agrees with them that it’s wrong to cause pain.  Also could they say it is “unkind”?  I believe they could.  By the general definition that humans ascribe to the word “unkind” it fits without someone believing that there is some objective “unkindness” property set in place somewhere outside of human minds.  It just fits the definition that the vast majority of humans ascribe to the words “wrong” and “unkind”.  All words have some vagueness about them.  But I do empathize some when the moral realist begins to see a bit of a contradiction when moral anti-realists use the word “wrong”.

– Atheists are being fake when they criticize the Old Testament for it’s moral horrors (see this comment)

Again, for atheists who are moral realists this objection doesn’t make sense.  Brandon (who wrote the linked comment) mentioned Sam Harris, but Harris is a moral realist so it doesn’t really fit.  Brandon may not agree that Harris has a valid reason to be a realist but that is beside the point – if he is a realist he is not being fake.  If you’re unable to see how a meta-ethical viewpoint different from your own could have validity to it that’s fine, but just know that it won’t stop me from speaking against atrocities in the bible such as genocide and slavery.

Now the question does become more interesting for moral anti-realists.  But even an anti-realist may be humble enough to see that their view may be wrong and that morality really is objective.  If one was trying to evaluate the Christian worldview then in the process they would try to take on the viewpoint of objective morality. But then they become faced with the dilemma of these horrific passages which go so strongly against the moral senses of practically all human cultures.  So even an anti-realist can see how these passages go against the morality that the Christian worldview is trying to uphold. They could also feel that these passages are very clearly harmful to human society and that could go against their own desires for a better world.  Anti-realists are just as capable of having empathy as anyone else.

– Atheism make a conversation about morality impossible

Topics in morality are discussed many hours of every day in ethics courses at universities across the entire world, very often without appeal to gods.  Actually it can be more of a conversation stopper to simply say “this book that I believe is the truth is the sole authority of morality”.  If the other person doesn’t see the book as an authority the conversation is over.

An Offer

Lately the following has been a response to theists I’ve been giving to express my own feelings about this subject: I want life on earth for everyone to be as positive an experience as possible. It is simply a desire of mine and that desire would remain if there are moral truths that exist or not. I actually would like it if there were moral truths, and would even prefer there to be gods that existed that are somehow helping us in achieving this. I say that you and I should simply shake hands and make our best effort to work together to make our world a better place and if there are any gods that want to help out then I say “the more the merrier!”.

Where do you stand regarding objective morality?  Do you think you could place your views somewhere within the 4 listed above?

Bridging a Great Divide

I had a post about morality planned for February but it’s taking longer than I thought to write.  Instead, I’d like to share a video which to me relates very much to morality.

I found the video on one of Eva’s posts and I was very moved by it:

In the video, Naomi Feil, a Jewish woman, makes a connection with a woman who suffers from Alzheimer’s by singing Christian songs.  I think this made an even deeper impact on me given that I know of the aversion to Christianity that exists in the Jewish community.  This was very clear to me growing up in a Jewish home, and I also found it to be true, albeit to a lesser extent, in a more liberal Jewish congregation I attended several years ago.  There’s a lot of history causing that aversion, but happily I believe it is dissipating.

To me this is just one example of someone crossing over the boundaries of religion to make a beautiful connection with another human being.  I have always highly valued all human beings no matter what their beliefs are and my beliefs about ultimate questions have never changed that.  This was one of the things that attracted me to Christianity back in college – I believed that it represented true goodness and that it matched this value that I had within my heart.  That strong value didn’t go away after I left Christianity though, and no matter what my beliefs are about the existence of gods, that value of mine will remain unchanged.  To me this is an important part of what morality is all about.

Morality Posts – Theism solves all the problems

…or does it?  I am willing to admit that morality is a very tough topic to think about.  But what I don’t see is that if I became a theist that the toughness of the topic goes away.  Even if I returned to theism I’d still be left with questions that I would have:

  1. How did god come up with morals? (relates to Euthyphro)
  2. What is it that grounds the moral authority of god over us?
  3. How do we know that the god we have chosen to believe in is actually a god who represents true goodness and not an evil god who has tricked us into believing that he represents true goodness?
  4. How do we know that our conclusions about what our god deems as moral are the correct conclusions or interpretations?  Couldn’t we be mistaken?
  5. What if it actually turns out that more gods exist than we thought and the other gods have conflicting morals – which morals would end up winning over as the objective ones which are meant to be followed?

That last one is an interesting one, and a related bit of info is the realization that all of the famous purported proofs for the existence of one god could be re-written to try and prove the existence of more than one god… try it out and see what you think.

My point is not that theists are in a tougher position regarding morality, but that we are all really on equal ground here.

There is definitely a positive side to the idea of having a god who represents true goodness (assuming we humans could get our act together and agree on all the things that are truly good)… it would be very nice to have someone watching over all of us and protecting those who want to be good, and keeping those who want to practice evil in check.  But obviously just because there are benefits to such a concept does not prove that it represents reality.  In fact, the reality of our world seems to indicate otherwise.

If you would like to think more about the comparisons between theistic and atheistic moralities and if you’d like to think even more outside of the box with some unique ideas I’d highly recommend this article.  I’d also highly recommend this debate for more very interesting thoughts on the good versus evil god hypotheses.

My next post will not have “Morality Posts” in the subject line, and will be a true transition away from the topic, because I think I’ve said enough! 🙂

Morality Posts – Moral Nihilism

I’ve focussed mostly on moral realism in these posts, but wanted to make a few brief comments about moral nihilism before I transition out of the subject of morality.  I’m not going to get into the details of the different kinds of moral nihilism (you can read Wikipedia for that) – in this post I’m just using it as a term to describe someone who believes that objective moral truths do not exist.

First, as I’ve mentioned before, after I decided that I didn’t have enough reasons to claim belief in Christianity I pretty much became a moral nihilist.  But I still had desires to live my life in the moral ways of compassion and empathy, and that was what I did.  And even further, moral nihilists could hold to a very basic set of values and conclude that certain moral actions lead to the fulfillment of those values (although they might believe that this whole process is a very subjective one which I would agree with to a certain extent).  I’ve discussed this sort of “practical” morality here and here.

As far as evidence against moral realism goes, there are examples from my own life that cause me to question moral realism as well.  I was raised in a Jewish family and so violating the Mosaic laws brought on great guilt for me for many years of my life (even after converting to Christianity.)  Eating pork is just one example of this (happens to be the popular example among Jews.)  Turns out that believing that Jesus is God is an even better example – the guilt I felt when considering conversion to Christianity was quite strong.  These guilt feelings really were no different than the guilt feelings I had or have when it comes to more common forms of morality.  There really is no way of distinguishing between these guilt feelings (or if there is, I have never had the ability to do that.)  This leads me to believe that our cultural groups can have a very strong impact on what we believe to be moral truths.  I can see why this as well as evolutionary evidence could lead one to believe that there are no objective moral statements, but what I have been trying to express in these posts is that this is not at all a conclusion that we are forced to.  Just because our cultures (or even evolution) can influence different people to contradictory conclusions about morality does not at all mean that there are not objective moral truths that somehow exist.  Our cultures have also been able to influence different people to contradictory conclusions about how old the earth is, but this doesn’t force us to conclude that there is not an objective fact of the matter.  It is quite possible that there are also objective moral facts of the matter.  I am just not convinced strongly one way or the other.

Lastly, theists have a strange way of suggesting that moral nihilists are being “contradictory” when they mention anything related to “good” or “evil”, but this really isn’t the case.  Some of this really just comes down to natural language and communication that is close to universally accepted.  If someone punches you in the face for no reason at all, you don’t have to be a moral realist to say “that guy is a jerk” or even “that was wrong”, because those are statements that would be agreed upon by most everyone in our current societies.  In this sense there really isn’t anything contradictory about moral nihilists using this kind of “moral” language.  Now if they said that is just plain wrong in a cosmic sense, then of course that would be contradictory, but that isn’t what they mean when they talk in this way.  Another related point is that moral nihilists could still rightly point out the internal inconsistencies of certain religions (such as terrorists harming unarmed civilians in the name of an all good God.)

Morality Posts – an interesting exchange

I had a very interesting exchange with a theist on Nate’s Finding Truth blog over here.  It started from unkleE’s comment and then went back and forth from there.  It was a little off the main topic of Nate’s post but it was related somewhat.  I’m guessing it’s a low probability that any reader will be interested enough to click the link and read through our comments, but if you want to understand some of my views on morality a little more and would like to comment here or offer counter-arguments please do.  I kept it focussed on one particular item, but it did offer some interesting side discussions along the way.  At any rate this is at least a bookmark for myself in case I want to go back at a later time to understand what my views were at this point in my life.

An interesting thing to note in thinking a little more about this afterward is that if I were to return to a moral nihilistic view (which I had held for about 16 years of my life after I decided I didn’t have enough reasons to claim to be a theist) it would be because I felt that there was not enough evidence to support objective morality, not because I felt that somehow moral truths cannot exist without gods.  And if I decided that there was not enough evidence to support believing in objective morality, then that just takes me another step away from concluding that there are invisible conscious entities that exist.  This relates to what I have written in my 4th paragraph of this post.  I haven’t taken a poll or anything but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of atheists feel the same way.  I mentioned most of this (but not all) in the exchange as well.

There are a lot of other interesting things that this discussion got me thinking about.  If I can get some time away from work I hope to blog about those ideas.  I’ve taken on a new role at work and it’s been kicking my butt – and unfortunately it will get worst before it gets better.  This is the reason why my blog has been on hold for a little while.  I do hope to come back to this blog however, but I’m not sure when that will be.

Morality Posts – Euthyphro Dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma is a question that can be traced back to one of Plato’s writings where Socrates and Euthyphro are talking about morality and the gods.  The dilemma can be summarized in simple terms as such:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because God declares it to be good.

2. It is good independent of God and God loves it and commands it because it is good.

The above 2 options (sometimes called “horns” of the dilemma) are called a dilemma because each option offers problems for the theist.  Let me start by saying that I believe that horn #2 poses less of a problem for theists.  The main consequence stated for option #2 is that there is no longer a need for God if moral truths exist independently of God.  Actually, to be fair, I believe it could be argued that there would still be other needs for the existence of a God (and those could be debated as well), but it is correct that the full force of the moral argument would be gone.  Remember that the whole point of the moral argument is that objective morals could not exist without God, and because it seems that there are objective morals therefore God must exist.  If a theist were to accept option #2 above then they would clearly have to dispense with that strong form of the moral argument (because option #2 admits objective morals do exist apart from God).  As I noted in my previous post, there are theists who believe that there are standards of goodness apart from God.  Some of these theists believe that all moral standards exist as truths apart from God and others believe that only some moral truths exist apart from God, but either way, they are running into the consequence of the second horn, and some readily admit to that.

Ok, so now option #1, usually called divine command theory.  The problem with this option is sometimes described as morality becoming “arbitrary” because it is solely based on the whims of whatever God chooses to declare as good, even if they do not line up with what the vast majority of humans believes is good.  Examples might be the best way to show how this could cause major difficulties.  1 Samuel 15:3 and 1 Timothy 2:12 are both passages which express commands which do not jive with what the vast majority of humans would agree is good (unless they are interpretively manipulated of course).  1 Samuel 15:3 is particularly bad because what is described is clearly genocide (slaughter of infants is even included in the command).

I personally believe that theists do have an underlying feeling that option #2 is really what is going on, but they don’t realize it.  This came out in a debate I had with one of my Christian friends when I told him I had decided I could no longer believe in the Christian message. My friend told me that the truth of Christianity was obvious, and that all one needed to do was examine the major faiths to see this. What do you think was the first religion he chose to prove was obviously false? Why it was Islam of course. Why? He said it was obvious because just look at Jihad and suicide bombers!  Now this friend of mine actually believed in option #1 of the dilemma above, but this is very inconsistent with the fact that he felt that he was able to judge the truth of religions by moral standards.  Because if divine command theory is true then we would have no way to judge any religion by the morals that it espouses.  Suicide bombing could actually be morally good if we believe that God can declare it to be good.

Louise Antony in her debate with William Lane Craig also hit on another very important observation – many theists try to re-interpret bible passages like the ones given above.  If theists truly believed in divine command theory then there would be no need for interpretive gymnastics, they would simply leave the passages the way they are and accept that what they describe are good because God has commanded them.  The simple fact that theists try to re-interpret them shows that there is some moral standard that they are using to judge what is written.

Now another popular apologist response to the dilemma is that there is no dilemma at all because there is a third option: God’s nature or character is what is good, and he can only command whatever lines up with his good nature.  This is hard to think through, but it really is just a bit of sleight of hand trickery in moving the problem somewhere else.  The dilemma and it’s consequences still stand and it simply has to be re-worded:

Something can be defined as good one of 2 ways:

1. It is good because it is consistent with God’s nature.

2. It is good independent of God and it is part of his nature because it is good.

Personally, if I were to be a theist, then I would believe in horn #2 simply because the consequences of the arbitrary nature of divine command theory are so very ugly. Goodness would lose it’s meaning for me if absolutely anything commanded by a god or gods can be defined as good.