221 thoughts on “THE moral code

  1. To put in a nutshell: moral relativism may not give us anything to say to the Nazis, but it will prevent us from becoming Nazis.

  2. William,

    Innate, absolute, unchangeable characteristics, which is what I have argued is the kind of theistic morality necessary for a rationally coherent moral system, are not the “whims” of a creator, nor are they subjective, nor are they arbitrary. They are absolute (objective) and necessary.

    Goodness is not a necessary attribute of a creator.

    You are assuming that God is good and that we are therefore morally obligated to obey him. You could just as easily assume that God is evil and that we are morally obligated to disobey him.

    You haven’t provided any reason for elevating God’s morality from subjective to objective status.

    It can’t be merely because he created us. Recall my hypothetical example from a few months ago, in which humans discover how to create universes and some horny, pimply-faced teenager creates a universe in his basement because he wants to watch the inhabitants having sex. No sensible person would argue that the inhabitants of the basement are morally obligated to have sex for the voyeuristic pleasure of their creator.

    It can’t be because God is good, because that isn’t necessarily true. Also, to assume that God is good would be superfluous. If there is already an objective standard of good, then we are morally obligated to conform to it regardless of whether God exists and regardless of whether God’s subjective morality matches the standard.

    What valid reason(s) can you offer for promoting God’s morality from subjective to objective?

  3. Kantian Naturalist:
    To put in a nutshell: moral relativism may not give us anything to say to the Nazis, but it will prevent us from becoming Nazis.

    I wouldn’t say it prevents us from becoming Nazis. I would say that despite the numbers racked up in the twentieth century by failed political systems, the percentages of the total population killed in wars and atrocities was lower than the typical percentage killed in sectarian wars in previous centuries and millennia.

    And the percentage of people dying by violence continues to drop. Just my opinion, but it appears to me that the greatest threat to peace continues to be religion.

    For purely personal reasons I tend to be suspicious of and moderately hostile toward government, but “objectively speaking” secular government is a great boon. The “objectivity” centers on statistics. Individuals still suffer injustices.

    William seems to be selling something that is past its use by date.

  4. KN,

    To put in a nutshell: moral relativism may not give us anything to say to the Nazis, but it will prevent us from becoming Nazis.

    Only if our subjective morality clashes with that of the Nazis.

    For most of us, it does, fortunately.

  5. petrushka: Just my opinion, but it appears to me that the greatest threat to peace continues to be religion.

    I often wonder whether “religious differences” are the reason or the excuse for some conflicts.
    Maybe the greatest threat to peace is that posed by cynical use of religious factors in exacerbating what would otherwise be “differences of opinion”

  6. @ Robin

    I think there has been miscommunication over the meaning of ‘objective’, muddling ‘fair and balanced’ with ‘real’.

  7. William J. Murray: BTW, just for the record, there is (IMO) no Biblical hell, and atheism in and of itself doesn’t significantly matter in any spiritual sense. Even if one’s moral behavior cannot be rationally reconciled with their worldview premises, as long as they act morally, they don’t lose out on any “benefits” that only theists have available to them.

    So instead of “Atheists BAD, god bots GOOD,” now it’s “theists SUPERIOR, atheists SECOND CLASS CITIZENS.”

    Atheists have always rated low in the opinion of sectarians; far below women, blacks, homosexuals, and criminals.

    Like the “lower races,” atheists don’t have the native intelligence to tap into the True Source of morality. As long as they don’t do any harm to our refined moral sensibilities, we can let them play like small children. But watch out; they can be dangerous.

    Prejudices die hard.

  8. petrushka: I wouldn’t say it prevents us from becoming Nazis. I would say thatdespite the numbers racked up in the twentieth century by failed political systems, the percentages of the total population killed in wars and atrocities was lower than the typical percentage killed in sectarian wars in previous centuries and millennia.

    And the percentage of people dying by violence continues to drop. Just my opinion, but it appears to me that the greatest threat to peace continues to be religion.

    For purely personal reasons I tend to be suspicious of and moderately hostile toward government, but “objectively speaking” secular government is a great boon. The “objectivity” centers on statistics. Individuals still suffer injustices.

    William seems to be selling something that is past its use by date.

    Theophobic hyperbole and rhetoric. Command and authority theism can no more make a person do an immoral thing than atheistic moral relativism can make a person do an immoral thing. People still know the difference between right and wrong and only use such “isms” to justify their bad desires or behavior.

  9. Moral relativism doesn’t prevent anyone from becoming a nazi. What prevents anyone from becoming a nazi is knowing, on some level, that certain things are wrong, and refusing to do them, regardless of what one’s “ism” is.

  10. You are assuming that God is good…

    No, I’m assuming that the nature of “what god is” necessarily sets the absolute, universal standard for what good is.

  11. William J. Murray: Command and authority theism can no more make a person do an immoral thing than atheistic moral relativism can make a person do an immoral thing.

    Then you would agree with John Calvin and advocate burning Michael Servetus at the stake with slow-burning green wood because Servetus was a heretic?

    What better example of “command and authority theism” can you find?

  12. keiths:

    You are assuming that God is good and that we are therefore morally obligated to obey him. You could just as easily assume that God is evil and that we are morally obligated to disobey him.

    William:

    No, I’m assuming that the nature of “what god is” necessarily sets the absolute, universal standard for what good is.

    And you could just as easily assume that the nature of “what god is” necessarily sets the absolute, universal standard for what evil is.

    You’ve offered no reason whatsoever for a rational person to favor either of those assumptions over the other.

  13. William J. Murray:

    No, I’m assuming that the nature of “what god is” necessarily sets the absolute, universal standard for what good is.

    Do you believe that what people believe to be the “nature of god” is different among different sects of the “same” religion?

    Does what people think about the “nature of god” evolve over time?

    Did either of the above ever happen in human history? Did it happen in Western history? Did it happen in any of the Abrahamic religions?

    If any of the above ever happened, doesn’t that mean the “universal standard for what is good” evolved?

    If so, what then is an absolute moral standard? Who has it?

  14. Late to the game, so forgive me if this was already asked:

    WJM, Robin, et al.

    Is the self-evident truth evident only to humans or would it also be knowable to any sufficiently intelligent lifeform?

    Also, is it possible that for another form of life, say one that reproduces thousands of offspring with an extremely high mortality rate, what would be ethically/morally true may not be so for humans, or vice versa?

  15. Do you believe that what people believe to be the “nature of god” is different among different sects of the “same” religion?

    Yes.

    Does what people think about the “nature of god” evolve over time?

    Yes.

    Did either of the above ever happen in human history? Did it happen in Western history? Did it happen in any of the Abrahamic religions?

    I believe so.

    If any of the above ever happened, doesn’t that mean the “universal standard for what is good” evolved?

    No. It means (IMO) that how people interpreted, characterized and modeled an objectively existent commodity changed over time and varies from one group to the next.

  16. Mike,

    Then you would agree with John Calvin and advocate burning Michael Servetus at the stake with slow-burning green wood because Servetus was a heretic?

    In fairness to Calvin, he did request that Servetus be executed by the “merciful” means of decapitation rather than burning. His request was denied.

    Your point stands, of course. “Command and authority theism” leads to atrocious and barbaric behavior. How many “atheist moral relativists” advocate the stoning of adulterers?

    William?

  17. Is the self-evident truth evident only to humans or would it also be knowable to any sufficiently intelligent lifeform?

    Any sufficiently intelligent and rational life form.

    Also, is it possible that for another form of life, say one that reproduces thousands of offspring with an extremely high mortality rate, what would be ethically/morally true may not be so for humans, or vice versa?

    I think there are many moral statements that are conditionally true. Only very few moral statements are both self-evidently and objectively true. I don’t care how many offspring an entity has, torturing children for personal pleasure is wrong.

  18. And you could just as easily assume that the nature of “what god is” necessarily sets the absolute, universal standard for what evil is.

    You could also as easily assume that god was a giant ball of amoral spaghetti, but that wouldn’t solve the problem my argument addresses.

  19. William J. Murray,
    I think there are many moral statements that are conditionally true. Only very few moral statements are both self-evidently and objectively true.

    For sake of argument, suppose there is a strange form of life whose children lack self-awareness and sensation. Might it then the “torture of children” be conditionally true for these hypothetical aliens?

    How can we objectively determine if a moral statement belongs to the first category or the second?

  20. You “solve” the problem by assuming that whatever God wants is good.

    The problem can equally be “solved” by assuming that whatever God wants is evil.

    Why should a rational person favor one over the other?

  21. How can we objectively determine if a moral statement belongs to the first category or the second?

    You can’t objectively determine anything. All determinations are made subjectively. I don’t see how you can “torture” something without sensation or self-awareness.

  22. William J. Murray,

    Torture is not defined exclusively by pain. Removing the limbs of a being who, afterwards, gains sensation and self-awareness would still be torture by most standards.

  23. William J. Murray: If any of the above ever happened, doesn’t that mean the “universal standard for what is good” evolved?
    No. It means (IMO) that how people interpreted, characterized and modeled an objectively existent commodity changed over time and varies from one group to the next.

    But doesn’t that cast doubt on the ability of humans to “interpret, characterize, and model” this so-called “objective” reality.

    Doesn’t objective mean that everybody draws the same conclusion about an objective reality?

    If everybody can’t draw the same conclusion, which person has the “inside track” on what is real?

    How did there come to be so many sects within just the Abrahamic religions alone; literally thousands of them? Why are so many of these sects mutually suspicious of each other to the point of killing each other? Where is the objectivity in all that?

    It appears that you have fallen into the centuries old sectarian smugness of believing you have exclusive access to what is “right.”

    John Calvin would be thrown in prison today for his role in the burning of Michael Servetus at the stake for heresy. Some other “morality” intruded on Calvin’s “morality” – as well as the “morality” behind the Salem witch executions. Where did that new morality come from?

  24. How about just starting with the moral code “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” That would solve some of the relativistic issues regarding different societal and species norms.

  25. But doesn’t that cast doubt on the ability of humans to “interpret, characterize, and model” this so-called “objective” reality.

    Of course it casts doubt on it. However, what is logically certain are the necessary ramifications of the premise of a subjective good.

    Doesn’t objective mean that everybody draws the same conclusion about an objective reality?

    That depends on how you use and define the term “objective”. Is gravity an objectively existent phenomena? Have people always drawn the same conclusions about “what gravity is”, how to model it, etc..? If ten witnesses experience an objectively-existent event, do they always give the same description of those events?

    If everybody can’t draw the same conclusion, which person has the “inside track” on what is real?

    The person that can best ground their conclusion in reason.

    How did there come to be so many sects within just the Abrahamic religions alone; literally thousands of them? Why are so many of these sects mutually suspicious of each other to the point of killing each other? Where is the objectivity in all that?

    Are you asking me to explain human nature to you? People war, fight and disagree about everything, whether what they are fighting over has objective (absolute) properties or not. Free will allows people to deny anything and believe anything and live out virtually any kind of perspective they wish, whether it is moral or not.

  26. You “solve” the problem by assuming that whatever God wants is good.

    You are either immune to understanding my actual position, or you are deliberately misrepresenting me.

  27. William J. Murray,

    I would have thought it self-evident that the amputation of being A’s limbs for the purpose of pleasing being B would qualify as torture* but you disagree. So it seems that your objectively self-evident truth is in fact a conditional truth – the condition being that the victim be capable of sensation and self-awareness.

    (*in which suffering, though not physical pain, would occur in the future)

  28. Pitiful. You can’t answer the question, so you’re reduced to pretending that I’ve misrepresented you.

    Your own words betray you:

    William:

    No, I’m assuming that the nature of “what god is” necessarily sets the absolute, universal standard for what good is.

    And you could just as easily assume that the nature of “what god is” necessarily sets the absolute, universal standard for what evil is.

    You’ve offered no reason whatsoever for a rational person to favor either of those assumptions over the other.

    Which is it, William? Should we do what God wants, or should we do the opposite? Or neither?

    Justify your answer.

  29. William J. Murray,

    That depends on how you use and define the term “objective”.

    Ah, yes; the infinite labyrinth of word gaming.

    Of course you have a different definition of “objective” than other people do. So this has gone nowhere.

    The person that can best ground their conclusion in reason.

    Therefore, since John Calvin had grounded his conclusion – that Michael Sevetus was a heretic – in impeccable reasoning, it was moral to burn Sevetus.

    That’s “convenient;” all you have to do now is argue over the definition of “reason,” or “best,” or “conclusion.”

    Are you asking me to explain human nature to you? People war, fight and disagree about everything, whether what they are fighting over has objective (absolute) properties or not. Free will allows people to deny anything and believe anything and live out virtually any kind of perspective they wish, whether it is moral or not.

    You explain human nature? That would be … “interesting.”

    But, you did say that you can believe anything you wish and change what you believe whenever you like. At least you are consistent in that regard.

    But obviously, then, your definition of “morality” changes with your whims; and so do your definitions of “objective” and “reason.”

    This isn’t philosophy; it’s just jerking people around with word games.

  30. William,

    The theory of macroevolution tells us that current evolutionary theory cannot long survive environmental challenges such as facts and logic, and that a more fit theory, such as ID, will necessarily take its place.

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/a-world-famous-chemist-tells-the-truth-theres-no-scientist-alive-today-who-understands-macroevolution/#comment-447076
    Given that “theory” has a very specific definition, would you care to tell explain what that “theory of ID” is?

    If you can’t, does your morality not preclude you from making such claims? Or would this be another of those “he said, I’m just repeating it” type claims of yours that ultimately you don’t have to support?

  31. William J. Murray: Command and authority theism can no more make a person do an immoral thing than atheistic moral relativism can make a person do an immoral thing.

    That is not the proper test. The proper test is whether or not Command and authority theism can prevent a person from doing something the Command and authority theism regards as immoral. Thousands of years of history seems to prove it cannot.

    edited to add for somewhat more clarity:

    Theism throughout history shown a distinct lack of ability at getting people to obey its own rules. A pretty stark, abysmal failure rate by any measure.

  32. Hmmm…ok. I’m just going on some comments that Lizzie and few others posted, but maybe they are using objective differently from the way William is using it.

  33. Hmmm…an interesting question Hampton.

    Just a point here since you came in late – I’m not advocating William’s point myself. I just happen – and I’m beginning to think it just sheer dumb luck – to understand what William is getting at. But I do not hold that there are or can be objective or even self-evident moral truths. I’m very much a moral relativist.

    That said then, I certainly think that if other lifeforms have morals, those morals will be very different from ours. Let’s look at an example close to my heart.

    I love cats. I really do. I find them to be fascinating creatures on the whole, but there’s something about having one or two around to pet and play with that really improves my mood and well-being. I find them to be good companions, though their behavior can seem odd from my perspective at times.

    However, domestic and feral small cats devastate local fauna. By conservative estimates, cats kill billions of birds and small mammals annually.

    Now, from my perspective, killing needlessly or simply for sport is “wrong”. However, to a cat, killing is what he or she is driven to do. So, would killing mice and birds be immoral to a cat even if the cat is not going to eat the prey? I don’t think so.

    So, for me then, different organisms would have different moralities.

  34. Whether or not theism or any other ism “has a better track record” in any sense of the phrase is entirely irrelevant to my argument. I’ve never argued or implied that a rationally coherent and well-grounded moral system based on self-evident, objective truths would make anyone behave more morally.

    I’ve only argued that it is rationally consistent and that atheistic morality (outside of “might makes right) cannot be.

    As far as I’m concerned, I’ve made that point and now we’re just into the feces-slinging portion of the “debate”.

  35. Ah, yes; the infinite labyrinth of word gaming.

    It’s my argument, with my premises. I defined the term “objective” several times with a definition straight out of a linked dictionary. When I say “it depends on how you define the word objective”, I am referring to those like Liz and others that attempt to switch their own convenient, idiosyncratic definitions (not found in the dictionary) for the definition I’ve already provided, in mid-argument, for the purpose of confounding the argument.

    So, it’s not me that’s playing “word games” with those terms; it’s others who don’t like the ramifications of my argument and try to redefine “objective” as I mean it in my argument to mean some form of “consensus”.

  36. But obviously, then, your definition of “morality” changes with your whims; and so do your definitions of “objective” and “reason.”

    My definitions of “morality”, “objective” and “reason” have stayed consistent throughout this argument, and as far as I remember, haven’t changed the entire time I’ve been posting at this forum. You’re just flinging feces here.

  37. In ancient Sparta, it was not only morally acceptable, but a societal imperative, that babies with an obvious abnormality be destroyed at birth. Sparta was a warrior state, it depended on its army for its existence. In its day, and with its concerns of being invaded by other armies, it thought this practice to be in the best interest of its society for survival. Were they wrong from their perspective? If someone imposed our moral code on them, and their army was weakened as a result, and they were invaded, and all of their males were killed by the invading army, the total number of men killed would be greater than the total number of abnormal babies killed. Where would our moral code stand then?

    Was their objective reality correct just because there was a consensus that it was correct?

  38. William J. Murray:
    Whether or not theism or any other ism “has a better track record” in any sense of the phrase is entirely irrelevant to my argument. I’ve never argued or implied that a rationally coherent and well-grounded moral system based on self-evident, objective truths would make anyone behave more morally.

    I’ve only argued that it is rationally consistent and that atheistic morality (outside of “might makes right) cannot be.

    Then what good has all your philosophical wanking been? For centuries theologians/philosophers did the rhetorical equivalent of debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.* Genuine modern science was born only when those shackles were thrown off and experimentation was begun. It’s time for rubber to meet road. How can we use your proposition. Of course making life on earth better for all was never your goal. What you will do now is go back to your flock and declare all those atheists are either stupidly irrational or evil. Like bigoted theists needed someone to do that for them anyway.

    *For all I know that did that too.

  39. William,

    You claim to have a “rationally coherent and well-grounded” moral system, but take a look at the harsh reality.

    You can’t even explain how a rational person, using your “system”, could determine

    a) whether God is good or evil;

    b) whether God should be obeyed or disobeyed; and

    c) whether moral intuitions are a reliable guide to the “objective” morality that you have assumed exists.

    You arbitrarily pick one set of answers, failing to realize that the opposite set is just as rational, consistent and (un) grounded as your own.

  40. It seems a matter of great annoyance to some that atheists can simultaneously dismiss mythical spiritual arbiters of ‘oughts’ or ‘truths’, and yet still care about doing harm or being wrong. As if they have no right to care! Stop caring, atheists, it’s illogical, and very annoying! 🙂

  41. Allan Miller:
    It seems a matter of great annoyance to some that atheists can simultaneously dismiss mythical spiritual arbiters of ‘oughts’ or ‘truths’, and yet still care about doing harm or being wrong. As if they have no right to care! Stop caring, atheists, it’s illogical, and very annoying!

    When I was a kid there was a widely repeated catchphrase: “You can’t legislate morality.”

    Google search confirms my memory, that the phrase was being applied to desegregation.

    My thought at the time was, what else are you doing when you legislate? What is law other than the formalization of negotiated moral rules?

    I find it extremely odd in the 21st century that someone would value formal consistency above utility. Particularly in the light of history.

  42. William J. Murray: So, it’s not me that’s playing “word games” with those terms; it’s others who don’t like the ramifications of my argument and try to redefine “objective” as I mean it in my argument to mean some form of “consensus”.

    So now you play word games with word games.

    Intelligent expositors of ideas can get their point across in a few paragraphs. With you, on the other hand, it’s endless smoke and mirrors, converging to nothing.

    Verbal aikido is evidently a very exciting sport for you. No doubt you actually get invited to lots of parties.

  43. petrushka,

    I find it extremely odd in the 21st century that someone would value formal consistency above utility.

    And in any case, the two needn’t conflict. Subjective moral systems can be internally consistent, as can “objective” systems.

    For all of William’s talk about logic and rationality, his own thinking is quite sloppy and driven more by emotion than reason.

    He likes the idea of a perfectly good God, so he assumes it — perhaps without even realizing that this emotionally appealing idea is not the only rational option.

    He likes the idea that “self-evident” moral intuitions are infallible, so he assumes it — never mind that they are obviously not infallible, because sincere people disagree about what is and isn’t “self-evident”.

    He likes the idea that he is being cool-headed and rational, so he maintains it — never mind that people are exposing holes in his reasoning right and left, for which he has no answer.

  44. In defense of William: (perhaps the kiss of death for him)

    Assuming that God is good is not illogical. Follow my reasoning.

    I am making the claim that there is no such thing as evil. I choose to define evil (as some philosophers and religious scholars do) as the absence of wisdom. What wisdom? The wisdom to see that all humans (and all living things, in fact) are connected, that doing harm to another is doing harm to oneself, both physically and spiritually/emotionally. Wisdom is the ability to see that we are not solely individuals, but part of a greater cosmos.

    History is a teacher. First we felt we were part of a small group (in the caveman days), then we felt we were part of a village, a city, a country, and now, a species. With each leap of knowledge we realized that we were part of a greater whole. If we encounter intelligent aliens, and we are wise enough, we will realize we are part of a larger group of intelligent beings in the universe, no matter what they look like or whether they are carbon based or not. Eventually, we will realize that we are not just matter. As Hans-Peter Durr, a physicist who worked with Werner Heisenberg, wrote, “Matter is not made up of matter. Basically there is only spirit.”

    So, if evil is only ignorance. If God (by definition) is supremely intelligent, then God has to be good. QED.

    PS. The term “good” probably means less to God since it is a man-made term. To Him, good simply means wise (fully awake) and evil is just stupidity.

  45. I agree that William’s reasoning is sloppy, but I deny that there can be a perfectly coherent morality.

    One can reason correctly about anything and build perfectly coherent castles in the sky.

    But morality is about the consequences of actions, and one cannot have perfect knowledge of consequences. Additionally, one is seldom presented with moral dichotomies. More often, we deal with quandaries, dilemmas and uncertainty.

    So while one can reason correctly, moral premises are never clean and polished in real life.

    And invention is more common than decision. We are not often presented with a moral menu. Instead, we are presented with materials with which to make something, and that something is up to us.

  46. petrushka,

    But morality is about the consequences of actions…

    Only if you are a consequentialist. Deontologists would disagree.

    …and one cannot have perfect knowledge of consequences.

    True, but perfect foreknowledge isn’t necessary for a coherent morality, even if you are a consequentialist. It is possible to judge the morality of actions based on their anticipated consequences rather than their actual consequences.

  47. billmaz:

    In defense of William: (perhaps the kiss of death for him)

    William needs all the help he can get. 🙂

    Assuming that God is good is not illogical… I choose to define evil (as some philosophers and religious scholars do) as the absence of wisdom… So, if evil is only ignorance. If God (by definition) is supremely intelligent, then God has to be good. QED.

    Intelligence and wisdom are not the same thing. An intelligent but evil God is perfectly conceivable.

    And if you choose to define God as wise, then you are assuming your conclusion, because you have already defined “wise” to mean “not evil”.

  48. keiths: For all of William’s talk about logic and rationality, his own thinking is quite sloppy and driven more by emotion than reason.

    My impression is that, despite his “disclaimers,” he appears to retain most of the thinking patterns of those fundamentalist sectarians who loath “atheists,” “materialists,” and “Darwinists;” terms that are virtually interchangeable in sectarian circles and imply evildoer. Sectarian sophistry is usually an attempt to make those attitudes “rationally” justified.

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