Thursday, July 29, 2010

The amoral imperative

Hector Avalos has written another post in which he continues to press his case for the glorious cause of moral relativism. But before I delve into the details, I’d point out, once more, that this is self-stultifying. If moral relativism is true, then what’s the point of making a case for moral relativism? Presumably he’s trying to persuade more people to agree with him. But if moral relativism is true, then there’s no moral obligation to believe in moral relativism. If moral relativism is true, then no one should believe in moral relativism. Avalos keeps acting as if we ought to believe that we ought not to believe anything.

Why does he spend so much time trying to convince other people that moral relativism is true? It’s not as if they have a duty to believe there are no duties to believe. So why does he try so hard to make people agree with him? If nothing is intrinsically right or wrong, then why is it so all-important to believe what he does? Is there a moral imperative to be a moral relativist?

Avalos is living a lie. He can’t bring himself to stare the grim implications of his own position in the face.

On a related note is his desperate effort to create parity between Christian ethics and secular ethics. But, again, what’s the point? He’s in a drag-race to see who can drive over the cliff sooner. Will he beat us? Will he get there before we do? Suppose he does. What does winning amount to if nihilism is the grand prize?

Avalos began his career as a boy-preacher, and at this stage of life he is now an overgrown boy-preacher. Thumping his Word of Godlessness and summoning the faithless to the altar-call of moral suicide.

He’s like an engineer who designs a clever mantrap, then accidentally steps into his own trap. His ingenuity is self-defeating.

Killing children could sometimes be obligatory, according to Triablogue. It didn’t take long for Triabloggers to deconstruct their own claim to believe in moral absolutes. In fact, it is very clear now that they are as morally relativistic as anyone else. It just took a few simple questions to help them contradict themselves.

Notice that he doesn’t show how that is incompatible with moral absolutes. It would only be incompatible with moral absolutes if taking the life of a child was intrinsically evil. Where’s the argument?

I asked this question of Triabloggers, especially because if killing children is not absolutely wrong, then what is?

That’s a question, not an argument. Where’s the argument?

After all, the word “always” is pretty absolute and not ambiguous. Either X is “always” wrong, or it is not.

That’s how he chose to frame the question. But just because that’s how he decides to define a moral absolute doesn’t make it so. Once again, where’s the argument?

Steve Hays:
i) God does no wrong by taking the life of an infant.
ii) There are also situations in which, no matter what you do, some innocent blood will be shed. Should we bomb part of a Syrian city that’s producing a biochem weapon which will be used to wipe out London, even though bombing that part of the city will kill some babies belonging to the resident scientists? Short answer: that might be permissible or even obligatory. But that’s entirely consonant with moral absolutes. Not all obligations are equally obligatory. There are higher and lower obligations. In case of conflict, higher obligations supersede lower obligations.

Hays, in particular, mimics the bin Laden approach to morality on 9-11. On that date, bin Laden was attacking New York, City and Washington DC, the centers of what he perceives as an oppressor of Muslims. His goal was to save Muslim lives.

So, if bin Laden had to kill a few thousand civilians, including children, to save millions of Muslims from American weapons of mass destruction, then Hays would presumably support it. Or is Hays saying that it is just acceptable to kill children when Christian or Western cities are in jeopardy?

i) This very comparison ironically evinces his own lack of elementary moral discrimination.

ii) Apropos (i), his comparison simply presumes moral equivalence between the two cases. But where’s the argument?

iii) The fact that bin Laden may have “perceived” the US as an “oppressor” of Muslims is hardly analogous to my example, which involved a real threat, not an imaginary threat.

iv) Where’s the evidence that, prior to 9/11, the US was going to deploy WMD against Muslims?

v) There is also an obvious moral asymmetry between an unprovoked attack and a preemptive counterattack if we know that a state sponsor of terrorism is developing a biochem weapon which it will use against us. (And, in my hypothetical, I used the word “will,” not “may”).

vi) Also, feeling “oppressed,” even if that feeling is justified, does not ipso facto justify mass murder. That’s morally disproportionate to the grievance.

vii) Moreover, bin Laden hardly treats Muslim blood as sacrosanct. He himself is prepared to shed the blood of fellow Muslims. Jihadis kill Muslims in droves.

viii) Furthermore, not all lives are entitled to the same protection. The life of a schoolyard sniper is not entitled to the same protection as the lives of the students he is gunning down. This goes to the elemental distinction between guilt and innocence.

ix) Avalos is the one who mimics bin Laden by endorsing bin Laden’s view of the US as the real culprit.

x) Finally, since Avalos is a moral relativist, what’s the point of ranking me with Hitler, Stalin, and bin Laden? If you’re a moral relativist, then what’s wrong with being in the same company as Hitler or Stalin?

Avalos is trading on the invidious connotations of Hitler and Stalin, yet since he is, by his own admission, a moral relativist, those invidious connotations don’t correspond to anything objectively evil.

So, what is the difference again between moral relativists and absolutists? It is merely another version of: “I have judged that my deity is right, and yours is not.” Recall that Hays has already told us that just because Allah says something, it does not make it morally permissible.

And I gave reasons for that, which he blows right past.

Moreover, I can find theists who say it is permissible to have fun when torturing children. Consider Psalm 137:8-9 (RSV):

[8] O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
[9] Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

I say "torturing children" because we can suppose that these children would suffer, or not die immediately, if dashed against rocks. So, is this biblical author immoral for Hays or Manata?

I’m struck by Hector’s wooden mistreatment of idiomatic usage. As two scholars explain:

“Every student of the Bible knows that certain expressions are not to be understood ‘literally.’…But consideration of ancient Near Eastern modes of thought and expression is only too easily forgotten in the face of figures of speech which may be construed more concretely. An instance is the horror usually aroused by the imprecation over Babylon: ‘Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’ (Ps 137:9). We need to consider, however, whether these ‘little ones’ ought not to be understood just as symbolically as ‘Mother Babylon.’ The inhabitants of the oppressor-city or the children of the ruling dynasty concretize the continuation of the unrighteous empire (cf. 341-42). In this vein, one might translate: ‘Happy is he who puts an end to your self-renewing domination!’” Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World (Eisenbrauns 1997), 9.

“Yet we should not press the psalm’s metaphorical language. None of the passages that refer to smashing children are simple reports of someone’s action; all come in the words of prophets, apart from this psalm that appeals to the words of prophets. Zedekiah’s sons were not actually smashed on a crag…and it is unlikely that this is what the psalm literally envisages. Middle Eastern writings like to express things concretely rather than abstractly,” John Goldingay, Psalms 90-150 (Baker 2008), 609-610.

I’d add that Keel and Goldingay are hardly committed to the inerrancy of Scripture, so they don’t say this to spare the reputation of Scripture.

In fact, Triablogue does not condemn all enjoyment of baby-killing. Here, they appeal to FEELINGS TO JUSTIFY their scriptures morality:Psalm 137 per Triablogue

“There are people like the Psalmist who, under extreme duress and provocation, really feel that way. They understandably lash out at those who hurt them. Why is Scripture not allowed to even record their feelings?”

A truly inept reading of what I wrote:

i) To begin with, Hector’s statement piggybacks on his wooden misinterpretation of the Psalm.

ii) I didn’t appeal to feelings to justify the verse. Rather, I pointed out that it is morally permissible for Scripture to record what people feel. That is not, of itself, an endorsement of what they feel. Indeed, Scripture routinely records a variety of incidents which Scripture condemns.

iii) When people are grieving, they frequently make intemperate statements. But even though their statements may be wrong, it would also be wrong to reprimand them in their state of grief. That is not the time or place.

Never invite Avalos to a funeral!

Did Hays or Manata feel the same way about those radical Muslims who might have danced in the streets when the Twin Towers went down? Would Hays be as understanding if someone said: “Happy shall you be when you take their children and rape them”? Should we try to understand that person’s feelings the way Triablogue wants us to understand the psalmist’s feelings?

This is a trick question, since the question is predicated on a false premise. He imputes a false interpretation to what I said, then poses a question which assumes his false interpretation.

Muslims would only be entitled to celebrate 9/11 if that attack was a just and proportionate recompense for a suitable provocation. But unless Avalos shares the same outlook as bin Laden (which is apparently the case), the comparison falls flat. In any event, since I don’t share his sympathies with bin Laden, it’s a straw man argument.

And, of course, the text goes beyond “reporting” feelings. Psalm 137 suggests those feelings are justified. Recall also that just thinking about doing a particular act is tantamount to committing that act, according to Jesus (Matt 5:28).

Before we can say what Ps 137 justifies, we have to translate the figurative imagery into a literal proposition. The psalmist is justified in petitioning God to punish Babylon for her wickedness, in compliance with his prophetic threat to do so.

Part of the evidence that there are no such thing as objective moral absolutes is the fact that one can dissolve any moral statement into a tautology---a completely circular statement.

However, Hays claims that he is free of tautologies: The circularity is bogus since that’s a caricature of what I believe. Something is not evil just because God says it’s evil. If God says something is evil, then that ensures the truth of the statement. But that is not what makes it evil. For instance, sodomy is evil because God designed human nature to function in a certain way. Sodomy represents a violation of the way in which we were made to function. That’s not dissolvable into a mere tautology.

Hays is wrong. This claim (also a tired natural law argument) about sodomy IS dissolvable into a mere tautology. Observe:

Step 1: Sodomy is evil because it is a violation of the way in which we
were made to function.

Step 2: A violation of the way we were made to function is evil because
a violation of the way we were made to function is evil.

This is yet another bait-and-switch by Avalos. Let’s compare this with what he originally said:

A. “X is evil because God says X is evil” dissolves into:
B. “Whatever God says is evil should regarded as evil because whatever
God says is evil should be regarded as evil.”

Now let’s compare these two statements:

A. “Sodomy is wrong because God says sodomy is wrong.”
B. ”Sodomy is wrong because it violates God’s design for human nature.”

B is not reducible to A. Rather, B is a way of grounding God’s command in A.

And let’s compare these two statements:

A. The lights went on because the lights went on.
B. The lights went on because I flipped the light-switch.

B isn’t reducible to A. B isn’t circular or tautologous. For the relation is asymmetric. To say the lights went on because I flipped the light-switch isn’t equivalent to stating that I flipped the light-switch because the lights went on.

However, suppose we play along with Hector’s contention for the sake of argument. If, according to Avalos, all explanations are disguised tautologies, then Avalos can’t argue for anything since all of his arguments are reducible to tautologies. In that case, Avalos can’t argue for atheism, or Latino rights, or moral relativism, or Hitler’s “true” motives.

If every explanation can be reformulated as a tautology, then whatever reasons Avalos may give or atheism, his justification is dissolvable into “Atheism is true because atheism is true!”

Hays offers us no “absolute” or “objective” reason why violating what he says is the way we were made to function should be evil. It does depend on a tautology that cannot be differentiated from its opposite (“it’s not evil to violate the way humans were meant to function”).

To the contrary, I gave a teleological explanation, which is certainly an objective reason. To say an air pump pumps air because it was designed to pump hair is an objective reason for why that device pumps air–rather than making popcorn.

But if Avalos is going to assert that teleology has no bearing on morality, then he’s begging the question. If that’s his position, then he needs to present an argument to that effect. Of course, by his lights, any argument he presents is tautologous, which invalidates the argument.

By Hays’ reasoning, penetrating a rectum with a penis is a violation of how God meant humans to function. However, penetrating a human body with a sword, a common way to kill people in biblical times, is acceptable. Apparently human bodies were designed to be penetrated by metal implements, but not by flesh.

i) Needless to say, that grossly oversimplifies the argument against sodomy, which involves a number of interrelated factors–including proper function, the psychological and physiological complementarity of the sexes, the right of children to have suitable role models, &c.

ii) A punishment (i.e. execution) may well be unnatural because the offense is unnatural. The offense introduces an unnatural dynamic into the natural and moral order which, as such, sometimes requires an unnatural solution to restore the status quo ante.

If a malicious neighbor poisons your pet cat, you may need to seek medical intervention. The veterinarian has to go beyond allowing nature take its course, for the course of nature has been artificially diverted by the poisoning. Special circumstances call for special remedies.

Moreover, Hays’ morality rests on an unverifiable claim that he can tell how God has designed us to function.

That’s an assertion in search of an argument. Avalos needs to demonstrate that divine design is unverifiable.

By his logic, we cannot wear glasses on our noses because God designed noses for respiration and smelling, and not for placing glasses upon them.

i) That piggybacks on his previous caricature of the argument against sodomy (see above).

ii) Moreover, needing corrective lenses is a result of the Fall. So that’s an effort to restore the status quo ante.

I see no more evidence that Hays knows what God wants than I see evidence that Osama bin Laden knows what God wants.

That’s not an argument. Rather, that’s an autobiographical statement of his mental state.

As usual, Triabloggers deify themselves by equating their judgments with God’s supposed judgments.

To the contrary, it reflects an appeal to God’s revealed judgment.

Second, my starting premise does not have to be what Manata demands. I also could use this rationale:

A. It is morally permissible to use any action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

B. Abortion, with its 100% salvation rate, is an action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

C. Therefore, it is morally permissible to use abortion as an action to achieve the highest proportion of saved souls.

A takes for granted a purely utilitarian value-system. For Avalos to impute that to prolifers, he would first need to show that prolifers are necessarily committed to utilitarian ethics. Where’s the argument?

B assumes that more individuals are saved if all the individuals from just one generation are saved, rather than some (or many) individuals from each in a long series of generations. Where’s the argument?

In addition, B also assumes that are prolifers are warranted in believing that dying infants are automatically saved. But Avalos would need to show that all prolifers are necessarily committed to that assumption.

Compare this rationale to that offered by Hays to kill Syrian children:

A. It is morally permissible, even obligatory, to kill Syrian children to save London if those children are present in the part of a Syrian city that manufactures biochem weapons.

B. Children are present in the part of a Syrian city that is producing a biochem weapon which will be used to wipe out London;

C. Therefore, it is morally permissible, even obligatory, to kill children present in that part in the part of a Syrian city that manufactures biochem weapons.

Here, the salvation of souls is NOT the intended "higher" goal, but rather the preservation of the bodies of Londoners. The bodies of Syrian children are not held to be as valuable as the bodies of Londoners, but Hays cannot tell us why he made that difference.

i) Avalos is treating London and a Syrian city (let’s say Damascus) as morally equivalent. But in my hypothetical, they are not.

I mention Syria because Syria is a state-sponsor of terrorism. And in my hypothetical, the development of biochem weapons would be used to facilitate terrorism. By contrast, England is not a state sponsor of terrorism, although that may change over time (i.e. Eurabia).

ii) If a hostile state develops biochem weapons to use, without moral justification or adequate provocation, against another country, then that country forfeits some of the immunities to which it would ordinarily be entitled. As I said before, not all obligations are equally obligatory. Higher obligations may override lower obligations.

iii) I don’t reduce human value to the value of “bodies.” Indeed, that type of radical reductionism quickly leads to the denial of any values.

iv) This is not a question of comparative values. For instance, a Syrian may be just as valuable as an Englishman, but if he’s complicit in a criminal enterprise, then he’s no longer entitled to the same immunities. That’s the difference between guilt and innocence. And that distinction is key feature of moral absolutes.

v) As usual, Avalos can’t follow the argument–even when the argument in question is his own argument. I wasn’t comparing the value of life with salvation. I was addressing the question of whether it’s ever morally licit to take child’s life. That was Hector’s question, not mine. For some reason he can’t keep track of his own question.

In closing, I come back to my initial question. Why is Avalos fighting over the putrid corpse of atheism? Why is he trying so hard to convert everyone to the cause of nihilism? Assuming, ex hypothesi, that he won the argument, what’s the value of an argument that negates values?


  1. Good point. He obviously believes that moral relativism is true and that everyone OUGHT to agree with him. Otherwise why try to convince others?

  2. I also liked the explanation of the smashing of the children against the rocks. This could be interpreted figuratively refering to the next generation. Or the explanation you gave.