Saturday, October 18, 2014

The ball is in your court

Over at The Secular Outpost, Keith Parsons did a follow-up post on Biblical genocide. Here are my responses to him and some commenters. 

Again, though, Christianity has traditionally been committed to stating its case to unbelievers, using unbelievers’ own canons of rationality and morality to support the truth of the Christian revelation. From Paul on the Athenian Areopagus to Thomas Aquinas to Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig, Christian intellectuals have sought out the skeptic in his own abode and argued that by even secular standards of rationality and morality, Christianity is the most reasonable and moral position. C.S. Lewis spent his career as an apologist trying to take the argument to the infidel, and to argue on the infidel’s terms. To argue with the unbeliever, you have to open your hermeneutical circle to him; you have to be willing to argue on his terms, not just your own.

i) That's oversimplified. The unbeliever can't just dictate the terms of engagement, however unreasonable or one-sided. The unbeliever has his own burden of proof. If the unbeliever makes the rules, then the outcome is foregone conclusion. You can't lose if you win by definition. That's not a serious debate. 

ii) Moreover, it's not as if "secular standards of rationality and morality" are monolithic. Atheists are all over the map on these issues. There is no uniform standard. 

iii) When, moreover, Christians like me do debate atheists on their own terms, by pointing out how atheism leads to moral and existential nihilism, or global skepticism, atheists become very irate. 

Judging by Veritas’ response, he would say that, yes, Muslims can make the same claim, but they are wrong, and the Israelites were right. Israel worshipped the True God and the Muslims do not. OK, you can take that line, but it obviously vastly increases your burden of proof. The justification for the passages in question now depends upon a whole, massive program of apologetic to prove that the Judeo-Christian God is in fact the true one. Only by proving this can you avoid the charge that you are engaging in special pleading, justifying actions for some (the true believers) that are not justified when committed by others. The ball is therefore in the apologist’s court, and the ball weighs a million tons.

Wrong. You don't have to prove Christianity to disprove Islam. You can disprove Islam on its own grounds. By Muhammad's own admission, the Bible (and the people of the book, Jews and Christians) supply the standard of comparison. 

The perpetrators of the genocide (or whatever you want to call it) are being asked by God to do something that no human being should be asked to do. 

Begs the question.

To be the perpetrator of a mass slaughter is not only a crime; it also entails harm to oneself. 

Whether or not it's a crime is the very point in dispute! 

No human person should be asked to kill children, even if those children are unrepentant idolators. 

Who is claiming the children are impenitent idolaters? 

Nobody should be asked to kill hundreds of fellow human beings in the manner in which God is described as asking the Israelites to slaughter the Amalekites even if those fellow human beings are irredeemably corrupt. 

What is he referring to? Death by the sword? 

People should not be asked to be the perpetrators of such horrendous acts because, again, such carnage involves harm not only to the victims but to the agents themselves.

Actually, doing the right thing can sometimes be emotionally or psychologically agonizing. That's true in war. That's true in some medical situations, where family members must make wrenching life-and-death decisions.  

To take another example, it's much easier to institutionalize some troubled family members (e.g. special needs children, senile parents) than care for them at home. That takes a tremendous toll of the caregiver, even if it's the right thing to do. 

Notice the glaring equivocation. A moral nihilist can't act more morally than a moral realist on nihilistic grounds. At best, he could only act more morally on realistic grounds. But that's judging his conduct by the very position he repudiates. So the comparison is incoherent.

"But you're not a moral nihilist, so what do you care?"
So are you asking the reader to judge the actions of the shooter by Christian ethics? How does that advance the argument for atheism?

"If a moral nihilist went on a shooting spree, would you refuse to judge his conduct by the very position he repudiates?"
Scott, what is the standard of comparison? You keep tripping over the same issue.
In your original comment you indicated the irrelevance of moral realism. You said on the one hand that a moral realist might violate his own principles. On the other hand, you said a moral nihilist might, for subjective reasons, do what the realism failed to do.
So how are you asking the reader to judge the shooter? By moral realism or moral nihilism?
"But you're not a moral nihilist, so what do you care? If the moral nihilist acts in the most upright manner you possibly can think of but the moral realist acts like a terribly awful person his entire life, would you deny that the moral nihilist has acted more morally?"
He acted more morally in spite of his position, not because of it.
"Regardless my point is the moral subjectivist or nihilist and the moral realist can display the exact same behavior…"
In which case, why bring up the shooting spree? If it isn't wrong to go on a shooting spree, what does your example illustrate?
"…so I'm curious why you keep trying to show the moral subjectivist's behavior to be incoherent."
You keep missing the point. Why is that?
I didn't suggest his behavior was incoherent. Rather, I said your evaluation of his behavior was incoherent.
"Moreover, I'm honestly curious how theism solves anything here. Why does God commanding anything thereby make it moral?"
If you're honestly curious, who have you read on the subject?

"I take that as an admission the moral nihilist acted more morally. And I take that as a huge admission."
To say that if Christianity is true and atheism is false, even a moral nihilist can do something objectively right is hardly a concession to atheism.

"No, I’m asking people who believe morality is either objective or subjective to judge the shooter. You obviously fall in the former category. I’m in the latter. And people who fall in either one of those categories can judge what the shooter did to be immoral."
So, moral relativists judge it to be subjectively immoral. Not truly immoral. And by that yardstick. other moral relativists might just as well judge the shooting spree to be subjectively moral.
"You judge it wrong because a biblical God told you that killing was wrong (in some circumstances)."
Well, that's a half-truth. It conflates moral epistemology with moral ontology.
"So the repeated question: 'Why do atheists who aren’t moral realists do X?' is irrelevant. And once I show that that's irrelevant, hopefully we can get back to the topic at hand, and the topic of Parsons's post: God acted really abominably during the whole Canaanite fiasco."
You chronically contradict yourself:
i) Atheists who aren't moral realists surrender the right to say God acted really abominably during the whole Canaanite fiasco.
ii) At best, they could try to argue that, according to Scripture itself, God acted really abominably. But, not surprisingly, they haven't been able to pull that off.
iii) Moreover, as I've pointed out on more than one occasion, if you reject moral realism, then why should you care how Yahweh acted? Why should you care what Christians believe?
iv) Some atheists who claim to be moral realists could attempt to attack Biblical holy war on external grounds. If, however, they take that tactic, the onus is on them to justify their version of moral naturalism. But in that event, they can't begin with an attack on Biblical holy war. Rather, they must begin by defending their value theory.
"Strangely enough, I think Bill Craig would agree with me on this. He has repeatedly said that atheists can act just as morally as theists, or even more so."
Actually, there's nothing unusual about Christian theologians granting that due to natural revelation and common grace, atheists can sometimes do things which are objectively right.
"He would only argue that, on the atheist view, there’s no objective base to that moral behavior."
Yes, that involves the routine distinction between how people act and whether their actions are objectively justifiable.
"But if the behaviors are the same, the issue seems more and more academic."
That only works to the degree that people are inconsistent or oblivious to their presuppositions. If, however, people are consistent or epistemologically self-conscious, that superficial similarity rapidly breaks down.
Moreover, it's funny when atheists like you retreat into anti-intellectualism. Aren't atheists concerned with taking a position to its logical extreme?
"it's unclear how God grounds morality better than anything else."
What literature have you studied on the subject?
"It also applies to me, because I have a subjective standard of comparison. Either way, I take it both of us would deem what the shooter did was wrong, no?"
To deem it to be subjectively wrong is factually indistinguishable from subjectively not wrong or subjectively right.
"I take that as an admission the moral nihilist acted more morally. And I take that as a huge admission."
A huge admission based on what?
"It’s perfectly possible that he acted more morally because of his position."
You keep toying with this Pickwickian definition of morality. If moral nihilism is true, then nothing he does is more moral or less moral.
"Now can we imagine the contrary? That he acted less morally (by your or my estimation)…"
You don't get a vote. You've disenfranchised yourself. You deny the existence of moral facts. Since you don't think there's true or false moral fact in how the shooter behaved, for you to say his action was (subjectively) immoral is an exercise in linguistic deception or self-deception.
"It goes against my subjective preferences…"
Like eating liver? If eating liver goes against your subjective preferences, does that make it wrong? Is a shooting spree equivalent to eating liver?
"No, you suggested his own evaluation of his behavior was incoherent."
It would only be incoherent if a moral nihilist deems his action to be good or bad.
"But as I’ve shown, and I think you've admitted, the non-moral realist can take any action he pleases."
I've admitted that a non-moral realist can be irrational.
"He can, as you admit, be MORE moral than the moral realist."
Not by his own yardstick, but by mine.
"So your attempt to charge incoherency against me and any other atheist fails."
To the contrary, you're confused (see above).
"you’ve got to stop asking me why I do certain things,"
No doubt it would be convenient for atheists to be let off their own hook. Don't expect that from me.
"Is the question too complicated to answer in a comment thread?"
Actually, I've been discussing that with Thibodeau. However, his modus operandi is to declare his own position true by definition. That's a convenient intellectual shortcut, but it proves nothing.
"This argument strikes me as very poor, and since I think Craig’s one of the best theistic proponents, I’ve always figured that was the best the theist had."
To begin with, there are varieties of divine command theory. In addition, there's natural law theory. Moreover, these aren't mutually exclusive.

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