Tuesday, November 01, 2011


J.D. Walters asked me to comment on something this Ricky Carvel said:

Ricky presents himself as a cradle evangelical who's suffering from a crisis of faith:

What is an 'objective' absolute moral? The reasoning (and this was more or less shared by Law) is that there are certain things which are universally morally wrong. Because this wasn't really challenged in this debate, there were no examples given, so it all became a discussion (this became the main issue in the rebuttals, see below) without a well defined subject.
I've thought through this issue a few times recently and am most of the way to convincing myself that there aren't actually any universal, objective, absolute morals. The most commonly cited (at least in the debates and discussions I have heard recently) example of something that is objectively morally wrong is the act of torturing children for fun. So lets take that and think about it. Is it absolutely, objectively, universally, in all times and places, morally wrong? Well, certainly I am against it, but I don't think its universal - there are, after all, many places and times where there are and have been no people, hence no children.

That confuses the universality of the event (torturing children) with the universality of its moral status. An event doesn’t have to be universal to have a uniform moral status­–be it good or evil. The presupposition of moral absolutism is not that evil events happen everywhere all the time, but that whenever or wherever a certain type of evil occurs, it's evil. That would be counterfactually true as well. 

But ignoring that rather trivial objection, is it ever justifiable? Well, no, but does that make it objective? And fundamentally, how does that fact require us to invoke a divine source of morality? As I see it (at the moment, this may change) this sort of morality is a product of society and doesn't actually require a higher level moral agent.

If adults and kids are creatures whom God endowed with certain properties, and if, to due to the nature of their divinely created constitution, adults have certain obligations to kids, then those are factors which ground the moral question in a divine source. I could amplify, but that’s a start.

That's not to say that there is no God, only that I don't think the moral argument works as a proof of God.

i) If you deny objective moral norms, then the argument from morality lacks a key presupposition. But, of course, any argument takes something for granted.

ii) Moreover, one function of the argument from morality is to present the unbeliever with a dilemma. If it’s a choice between God and amorality, what gives? Many unbelievers feign moral relativism, but they also have a way of instantly relapsing.

Society is greater than the individual…

That’s a big claim. And it’s ambiguous. Greater in what respect?

i) Concerted effort can often achieve greater results than individuals can. Yet even that cuts both ways. Concerted effort has the potential to either do greater good or greater harm than individuals can.

ii) Is human worth purely quantitative, so that two people are worth twice as much as one person, and so on? Or does human worth have an irreducibly qualitative aspect? Something you can’t just quantify?

iii) From a secular standpoint, I can imagine an atheist saying one Richard Feynman is worth a thousand ordinary men. As a Christian I don’t share that scale of values. I’m just examining the claim on its own grounds, given atheism.

iv) On the face of it, the claim has a Darwinian or Nietzschean ring to it. Where individuals are unimportant. What matters is the survival of the species. Individuals are practically worthless. They only have an additive value. Like pennies. As such, society has the right to squash measly, expendable, or inconvenient individuals underfoot, like an insect.

It reminds me of a film like Hitman (2007), where orphans or other children are kidnapped by or sold to a shadowy, extralegal organization that creates a private army of mercenary soldiers or assassins. There’s no mercy for the runts or weaklings or losers. If you can’t keep up, you die young. Only the fittest of the fit survive. Übermenschen. It also reminds me of the La Femme Nikita series (1997-2001), where agents who didn’t make the cut were put in “abeyance.” 

Compare this to the parable of the lost sheep (Lk 15:3-7), where the shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to go in search of one stray sheep.

Or let’s take a different comparison. Take cross-country running. Two competing teams.

Say you’re the fastest runner on your team. Your team can’t win unless you cross the finish line. Say a runner from the rival team stumbles, falls, and sprains his ankle. His teammates pass him by. Your teammates pass him by.

What should you do? Leave him behind? Or go back for him? If you go back for him, you lose. Your team loses. You let your team down.

Should everybody leave him behind as darkness begins to overtake the field? From a Christian standpoint, you’d forfeit the race to help him out–even though he’s not on your team.

Of course, that’s what Nietzsche hated about the Christian faith. In his prime, Nietzsche was a brilliant man. But, ironically, he himself became a weakling. A loser. He died of syphilic dementia. He became utterly dependent on the compassion of others.

...and I think it is entirely reasonable to see morality as an evolved product of an evolving society. 

But that equivocates over “morality.” Is it just a social code that evolves? Do “evolved” social mores correspond to intrinsic right or wrong?

Why then is torturing children for fun morally wrong? For two primary reasons, firstly it harms the child, who would otherwise grow to be a functioning part of the wider society…

i) But why is it good to be a functioning member of society? Why should that be a value?

ii) Moreover, on that functional criterion, some individuals are far more valuable than others. So it would presumably be okay to torture the less valuable members of society.

…and secondly because it further corrupts the harmer, further enhancing an anti-societal element in society. I believe this is a highly evolved system, but falls a long way short of requiring a divine moral code.

It only corrupts the torturer if you assume at the outset that torturing little kids for fun is wrong. But that’s the very question in dispute, given atheism.

All other 'absolute' morals I can think of also fit the context of hindering or (with regard to good morals) enhancing human society at its highest level.

i) Isn’t “enhancing human society” itself a normative claim? But Ricky has to establish a standard before he can say what enhances human society.

ii) What contribution has Ricky made to enhancing human society at the highest level?

By this line of reasoning, many things we consider to be absolute morals in this day and age were not, and would not have been considered absolute morals in ages past.

But didn’t he tell us that torturing little kids for fun is never justifiable?

One of the newest absolute morals to go was racism. Contemporary society is harmed and hindered by it, but that wasn't the case in ages past.

Needless to say, that’s moral relativism, not moral absolutism.

Similarly with slavery, it is morally wrong in our society, yet was an absolute requirement of the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Egyptian Empire, and so on.

Does he mean “morally wrong” as a matter of current social convention?

Thus, by my reckoning, the moral argument only requires a collective society that is considerably greater than the individual, it does not require a divine being that imposes morality on humanity.

Again, that’s equivocal. Craig isn’t saying you need to invoke God to ground arbitrary social conventions. Rather, he’s saying you need to invoke God to ground intrinsic good and evil.

(By the way, why would God impose a morality on humans and not on any other creatures? The human/animal distinction is an artificial one, which even Dr Craig skirted around in one of his rebuttals, see below).

To say the human/animal distinction is artificial is too vague to respond to.


  1. Thanks for this, Steve. I raised some of these points in my response to him over at his blog. I just couldn't believe when he said that in an earlier time it would have been the moral thing to do to endorse slavery.