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A Common Fallacy about Atheism:

This piece by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby (whose work I generally like) is an excellent illustration of what is probably the most common fallacy in discussions about atheism - the belief that atheism necessarily leads to moral relativism:

What society loses when it discards Judeo-Christian faith and belief in G-d is something far more difficult to replace: the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society. That is because without G-d, the difference between good and evil becomes purely subjective. What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong,but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: "Thou shalt not murder...."

Obviously this doesn't mean that religious people are always good, or that religion itself cannot lead to cruelty. Nor does it mean that atheists cannot be beautiful, ethical human beings. Belief in G-d alone does not guarantee goodness. But belief tethered to clear ethical values — Judeo-Christian monotheism — is society's best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones.

The atheist alternative is a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion, and in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves.

Jacoby's claim that atheism is antithetical to morality is far from unusual. As I note here, survey data shows that 51% of Americans believe that ""[i]t is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values" (thereby going even farther than Jacoby, who concedes that atheists can be "ethical human beings").

While some atheists are moral relativists, there is no necessary connection between the two beliefs. Atheists, like theists, can have strong commitments to objective views of morality based on reason, tradition, communitarianism, and so on. There is absolutely no reason why atheists can't have "clear ethical values" just as much as theists do. Indeed, most prominent atheist thinkers (consider, for example, Karl Marx or Ayn Rand) argue for very strong non-relativist views of morality. The standard form of the argument that atheism=moral relativism implicitly assumes that belief in a deity is the only possible source of moral values; but that assumption is simply wrong.

In the last paragraph of his column, Jacoby hints at a more moderate defense of the atheism=relativism equation. Perhaps atheists can have nonrelativist views of morality, but the lack of a single divine authority for moral principles leads to disagreement and a reduction in the certainty with which people hold their moral beliefs - thereby causing a widespead perception that "right and wrong are just matters of opinion." Maybe so (though I am skeptical), but theists have exactly the same problem. After all, they disagree amongst themselves about 1) what kind of God or gods exist, and 2) what the relevant deity or deities want us to do. Disagreement over moral issues between different groups of theists is every bit as deep as that between divergent secular views of morality. If the latter could persuade people that right and wrong are matters of opinion, so too could the former. Even if we limit our focus to the "Judeo-Christian" tradition to which Jacoby refers, there is still tremendous disagreement between different groups within the Christian tradition (to say nothing of the deep disagreement between Christians and Jews that the term "Judeo-Christian" is often used to elide).

Finally, it is possible to argue that, even absent any logical connection between atheism and relativism, atheists in fact are empirically more likely to be moral relativists than theists. I have not seen evidence definitely settling this issue either way. But even if the empirical claim is true, it doesn't follow that atheism is dangerous.

This is so for three reasons. First, it could be that the causation runs from moral relativism to atheism rather than the other way around. People attracted to moral relativism may become atheists as a result rather than vice versa. Second, even if the causation runs in the direction that critics of atheism posit, the harm caused by an increasing prevalence of moral relativism must be weighed against the harm caused by non-relativist, but deeply flawed views of morality. I would rather live in a society dominated by selfish moral relativists than one dominated by nonrelativist believers in Nazism, Communism, or radical Islamism. Whether increasing moral relativism is harmful depends on what values people give up to become relativist.

Finally, even if increasing moral relativism is indeed socially dangerous, there may be ways of persuading atheist moral relativists to give up moral relativism without also giving up atheism. Just as religious groups often successfully persuade theists to convert from one religion to another, it may be that some moral relativist atheists can be persuaded to become moral objectivists. Indeed, to the extent that becoming an atheist does cause people to become moral relativists, it may be because of the widespread prevalence of views of like Jacoby's. Some who conclude that God does not exist may also come to believe that there is no objective morality because they (like Jacoby) wrongly assume that the latter is a necessary implication of the former.

Thus, those who worry about the alleged trend towards moral relativism might be better advised to oppose it by emphasizing that moral objectivism is compatible with a wide range of views on religion, including atheism.

phosphorious (mail):
There may be another reason why atheism is often held to be immoral.

Morality requires free-will, and free-will is often held to be unscientific (science, after all, claims that everything happens according to laws). Sam Harris, I believe, denies free-will, as have many prominent atheists; and if atheism is seen as a matter of a rationalist rejection of anything supernatural, this may indeed be a logical entailment.

Obviously, there are atheists who believe in free-will (Ayn Rand for one), but, dependng on the grounds of the atheism, there is some question as to whether such a combination of beliefs is tenable.
12.15.2006 12:04am
Ilya Somin:
Morality requires free-will, and free-will is often held to be unscientific (science, after all, claims that everything happens according to laws). Sam Harris, I believe, denies free-will, as have many prominent atheists; and if atheism is seen as a matter of a rationalist rejection of anything supernatural, this may indeed be a logical entailment.

I'm not aware of "many" prominent atheists denying free will. But in any event, it's highly unlikely that more than a small fraction of atheists hold this very unusual belief. Moreover, some theists (e.g. - Calvinists and other Protestants committed to the doctrine of predestination) also deny the existence of free will.
12.15.2006 12:10am
Mark Field (mail):
Jacoby's point is silly and wrong -- how does he account for Buddhists?

Putting that aside, let me add another reason to your list:

It's important to distinguish the philosophy of moral relativism from the actual behavior of its proponents. A moral relativist might well behave in ways that outsiders find perfectly moral based on their own absolutist standards. Even if we assume that all atheists are moral relativists (a very dubious proposition -- consider, at the extremes, Marx and Rand, neither of whom remotely qualifies as a moral relativist), that wouldn't, by itself, make them bad citizens.
12.15.2006 12:13am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
phosphorus,

The problem with free will is not a particularly scientific one. It is just as problematic for the religious faithful who think that god is omniscient and knows what we all are going to do. Even if you wiggle out of this problem it gets worse.

For instance I know that some people have a good character and will donate generously to charity. Yet the very fact that I can predict this behavior means that their giving is caused by some aspect of their personality and if you view freedom as incompatible with prediction (as is necessary to get the conflict with science) then you can no longer credit them with moral goodness for their act.

Ultimately the entire business over free will seems to be a confusion. We don't feel that we lack moral culpability for acts that our own character compels. It is only external compulsion that really causes moral problems, being compelled by your own moral virtue is the very essence of moral behavior. But once understood this way the apparent tension with determinism vanishes. The apparent conflict was only the result of our intuitive failure to identify ourselves with the muck in our brain. In reality determinism only says that we are compelled to act by who we are thus solving any conflict.

Basically science just gets a hard rap on this because the scientific laws are easier to get a hand on. If you buy into the religious world view you are going to run into the same problems with souls and such. Either the nature of your soul determines what acts you do, in which case you have the same sort of determinism as one does in science, or it does not and it seems deeply unfair to hold your soul responsible for acts it was not responsible for deciding to do.
12.15.2006 12:18am
Mark Field (mail):

Moreover, some theists (e.g. - Calvinists and other Protestants committed to the doctrine of predestination) also deny the existence of free will.


No, Calvin believed in both predestination and free will. See, e.g., this link or this one.
12.15.2006 12:25am
Crunchy Frog:
Could we please have a moratorium on "G-d"? It's "God", for God's sake.
12.15.2006 12:28am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Also this whole deal alleging atheism leaves no room for objective morality is yet another example in the grand tradition of demanding atheism meet burdens religion itself does not meet, e.g., explaining what created the universe/big bang when what created god is brushed off (or unsatisfying answer by he created himself).

In particular there is no satisfactory account of where objective morals come from in theistic traditions. Sure they may be rules given by god but that doesn't answer anything. If whatever rules a omnipotent being postulated became moral obligations even if they demanded torture and other horrors then religion would suffer from the same problems of relativism it tries to smear atheism with. On the other hand if the answer is that god's laws are moral obligations because god is good (or some variation of this) then your in the same boat as the atheists. In order for 'god is good' to make (non-trivial) sense you must have a concept of good independent from your notion of god. In other words for the theist to dodge the relativity bullet they must postulate the very thing they allege the atheist cannot, an objective notion of morality independent from god.

--

More generally this is also a confusion of what would be good to believe with what we have reason to believe. Even if atheism/lack of belief lead to all sorts of horrible consequences it would be totally irrelevant to the question of whether it was true.
12.15.2006 12:29am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
One last quick point:

If you really believe that belief in judeo-christianity is necessary to keep social order shouldn't you expect massive increases in crime in Europe given the much lower percent of churchgoers there?
12.15.2006 12:31am
Randy R. (mail):
This is such a ridiculous argument, and I can hardly believe that in this day and age we actually have to discuss. First, history teaches us that religious belief or non-belief is no indicator of goodness. Second, there is simply no basis for saying any of the stupid stuff Jacoby says -- no one said athiests are accountable only to themselves. Many of them believe that they are indeed accountable to the rest of humanity, the planet and every living creature. Third, which Judeo-Christian God? The hateful vengeful one? The one who always smites his enemies? Oh -- that's a really good moral basis for living!

finally, the fact that Jacoby must use the word G-D instead of God seems to me more a belief in superstitution than in an actual god.
12.15.2006 12:41am
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Okay one more point,

Mark Field,

You may be right I've always thought that this must have been what Calvin believed but everyone told me I was wrong. However, the core of Ilya's point still stands. There are many religious denominations that believe determination (at least in the form of God's foreknowledge) is compatible with free will. Once you accept this then atheists get to be compatibilists as well.
12.15.2006 12:42am
Randy R. (mail):
But the bottomline for me is that I am really sick and tired of religious people saying that they are simply more moral and good than non-religious people. And among the religious, the judeo-christians are more moral and good than the Buddhists, Islamists, Shintoists, and so on.

Oh sure, they say that some of these people can be good, but that's little more than condescending baloney -- they don't even believe it themselves, but in a public newspaper, they have to at least pay lip service or else they would be branded as elitist and self righteous. Which they are.
12.15.2006 12:43am
Paxti:
[I]More generally this is also a confusion of what would be good to believe with what we have reason to believe. Even if atheism/lack of belief lead to all sorts of horrible consequences it would be totally irrelevant to the question of whether it was true.[/I]

So true. In fact, Jacoby himself falls victim to this fallacy when he says (quoted above):

"The atheist alternative is a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion, and in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves."

Jacoby seems to be saying that atheism is a problem not because it's false, but because it leads to bad behavior. This in no way proves the existence or non-existence of God.
12.15.2006 12:48am
Ricardo (mail):
I think logicnazi is right that free will is more a philosophical than scientific problem. I would count Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins as two prominent atheists who do not believe in free will. To use Pinker's term, people who argue in favor of free will are asserting the existence of a "ghost in the machine." And once you admit the existence of a ghost in the machine, why not go a step further and admit a ghost outside of the machine -- God -- is possible? Both propositions are supported by the same amount of evidence.

But all this has no bearing on whether morality exists. Morality is a set of rules that a member of society is obliged to live by -- a list of shoulds and shouldn'ts. When we observe someone violating one of those rules, we can claim that person is immoral as a factual matter. Some people are good at adhering to these rules on their own while others have to be threatened or coerced into obeying them -- that is why the criminal justice system exists.

If we acknowledge that humans are intelligent enough to comprehend moral rules and respond to incentives, justifying punishment or censure is straightforward. It is necessary to ensure a moral society. The issue of free will doesn't really come into play.
12.15.2006 12:51am
Paxti:
Did anybody read James woods' article in this week's TNR? Its a fascinating treatment of atheism, atheists, and the arguments for and against. Check it out:

http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20061218&s=wood121806
12.15.2006 1:01am
Elliot Reed:
And once you admit the existence of a ghost in the machine, why not go a step further and admit a ghost outside of the machine -- God -- is possible?
There are atheists who argue that the notion of God is self-contradictory, or so hopelessly confused as to be meaningless. But this is hardly a universal position among atheists; most of us think it would be possible for something recognizable as "God" to exist. God's nonexistence, on this view, is a matter of fact, not a logical necessity.
12.15.2006 1:09am
John Armstrong (mail):
The other side of the counter-argument should also be considered. While atheism removes what Jacoby believes to be the source of moral and ethical values, it also removes what is unquestionably the most powerful rationalization to override them.

How many wars have been fought because "it's wrong to kill, but G-d wants these people dead," or treasures looted because "it's wrong to steal, but G-d wants these to go to glorify His church"?
12.15.2006 1:11am
Roger Schlafly (www):
Ilya lost me when when he cited atheists Karl Marx and Ayn Rand for their strong opinions, and then argued that maybe atheists could be persuaded to change their moral views. Yeah, good luck.
12.15.2006 1:18am
Elliot Reed:
In particular there is no satisfactory account of where objective morals come from in theistic traditions. Sure they may be rules given by god but that doesn't answer anything. If whatever rules a omnipotent being postulated became moral obligations even if they demanded torture and other horrors then religion would suffer from the same problems of relativism it tries to smear atheism with.
Actually the major religion in our culture suffers from exactly this problem. The God of the Bible commands, causes, or condones all manner of atrocities: the rape of virgins captured in war, human child sacrifice, genocide, etc. To take these passages seriously you have to believe that as far as morality goes black and white really do switch depending on what God feels like today. Thankfully, the vast majority of Christians are better people than that and respond by pretending those passages aren't there.
12.15.2006 1:23am
Ricardo (mail):
Just to clarify, by possible I meant it in the sense of having a probability attached to it that is not arbitrarily close to zero. I am not accusing atheist/free-will-believers of logical inconsistency but of cherry-picking evidence and arguments. An equal weight of scientific evidence supports both the propositions that humans have free will and that God exists: none.

On the other hand, the old "how many wars have been fought in the name of religion" argument fails to move me. The Khmer Rouge, the Nazis and Communist Russia and China committed some of the worst atrocities in world history based on secular ideology and the pursuit of an imagined utopia. Religious fundamentalists and totalitarian ideologues are two sides of the same coin.
12.15.2006 1:31am
Ilya Somin:
Ilya lost me when when he cited atheists Karl Marx and Ayn Rand for their strong opinions, and then argued that maybe atheists could be persuaded to change their moral views. Yeah, good luck.

I argued that atheist moral relativists might be so persuaded. Marx and Rand, of course, were not relativists.
12.15.2006 1:39am
godfodder (mail):
I think Mr. Jacoby has a point, but I might emphasize different elements of it. The historical basis of Western society's "moral sense" is undoubtedly Christian. For all its faults, Christianity had a salutory effect on Europe and the West by weaving into the culture a wide variety of socially desireable attitudes and behaviors. Parts of the world where Christianity did not take hold have been, by and large, not terribly nice places to live.

I think the argument is more a practical one than a philosophical one. It goes something like this: Christianity inculcates a world-view that includes a wide array of socially beneficial attitudes. Even when it is utterly ridiculous (say, no meat on Fridays) it is relatively benign. It is not good for this advantageous social instrument to disappear.

This also has very much to do with human nature. For example, what if it is true that humanity has a "built-in" tendency to crave moral absolutes, or at least moral clarity? (It's late; I'm simplifying. Give me a break). If Christianity's benign influence goes away, what will replace it?

As an example, let's look at Europe. The power of the Church in Europe has been on the wane throughout the 20th century. As a result(?? yes, begging the argument), the European soul was seduced by two of the worst "-isms" in history: fascism and communism. These political systems satisfied man's craving for absolutes, but also brought about the deaths of hundreds of millions. Given those alternatives, maybe plain 'ol Christianity ain't so bad.

This obviously is not an argument that Jeff Jacoby would put forth (being a believer and all), but is it completely crazy? America has been one of the most Christian and religious societies in history. At the same time, it has provided an admirable example of prosperity and progress. Are the two completely unrelated? Perhaps. I suspect we'll find out in the next 50 years.
12.15.2006 1:43am
SANE (mail):
The blog entry by the Professor was simply confused and these comments are no less so. First, the author of the essay appears to be saying what others say in more philosophic or ontological terms. He just couches it in the context of morality.

The argument is not that atheists cannot have strict moral codes but that their "systems" by dint of their own view of the world can obtain no objective truth or certain knowledge in matters relative to human affairs qua human. Morality is one aspect of human existence. Another would be political order in the classic pre-Enlightenment use of the term.

But when the good professor blogs and states that there is a fallacy in the logic which holds that atheists are moral relativists but then just concludes that of course atheists can have "objective" moral systems, he provides not one example. He lists names of three systems but they would prove the opposite point.

A challenge to the good professor: detail one moral system that you believe is atheistic and does not fall prey to the charge of moral relativism, and I will demonstrate you are wrong. (Clue: Kojeve goes about as far as on might to make your point but I doubt if we will get that far.)

As to the Buddhist remark, Buddhism is not atheism. It began as a non-theistic religion, but it most certainly teaches the existence of a transcendant truth valid for all people at all times in all places and one that is not accessible empirically.

Atheism begins with the view that there is no transcendant truth available to man relative to human affairs because there is no transcendant being and that the only certain truth available to man is what he can reduce to mathematical symbol or reducible to countable matter. All else he might have opinions of or beliefs about and much support from others. But precisely because it is not reducible to quantity, it cannot be certain or what you term here to be objective truth.

Two additional notes. Mr. Jacoby is obviously Jewish and just as obviously sensitive to the the Jewish law which does not permit an observant Jew to write out any of the "Holy names", thus "G-d". According to that law, if the name is written out in full the document must be disposed of ritually rather than casually. Why that might bother some in this thread might be the subject of a blog entry in and of itself.

Looking forward to the challenge, assuming the Professor is up to it. At the very least he should demonstrate his point of a fallacy by describing a moral system and explaining how it is objectively true.
12.15.2006 1:46am
Sean O'Hara (mail):
What I find frightening about this argument is the implication that the only reason people don't go around raping and pillaging is that they're afraid of God. I have in fact encountered some Christians who've claimed outright that if God didn't exist, they'd be mass murderers.

As to the free will question, even though I'm an atheist, I'm with Calvin on this -- free will and determinism aren't mutually exclusive. If the universe is deterministic (and I suspect it is) I'm still making my own choices. It's just if you rewound me and gave me all the same inputs, I'd make the same decisions again.
12.15.2006 1:59am
Evelyn Blaine (mail):
I find it remarkable, if only as a matter of sociological fact, that many people who are unfamiliar with moral philosophy argue, as Jacoby does, that the only two options on the table are (a) divine command theory or (b) an extreme version of moral scepticism. But those are generally held to be the least plausible options among people who spend serious time thinking about these issues. Very few reflective theists (at least outside the hard-line Lutheran and Calvinist traditions) are really prepared to grasp the divine command horn of the Euthyphro dilemma, for obvious reasons. Even those who do tend to soften the doctrine almost beyond recognition by making separating divine command voluntarism about moral obligation from non-voluntaristic theories of other moral concepts. Likewise, almost no moral anti-realists want to deny that we can have robust, non-agent-relative reasons for judging one act to be morally superior to another, for equally obvious reasons; non-cognitivists, for instance, can maintain all this while denying that those judgments are truth-apt in the way that predicative statements about, say, physical objects are. (By "people who spend serious time thinking about these issues", incidentally, I don't just mean professional philosophers; my experience is that most students in freshman-level introduction to moral philosophy courses come, after reflection, to see the serious problems with (a) and (b)-type views and give at least some consideration to other positions.)
12.15.2006 1:59am
Michael B (mail):
What SANE said, in its entirety.
12.15.2006 2:01am
Ilya Somin:
Atheism begins with the view that there is no transcendant truth available to man relative to human affairs because there is no transcendant being and that the only certain truth available to man is what he can reduce to mathematical symbol or reducible to countable matter.

Not true. Atheism is simply the belief that there is no God. That is quite compatible with the possible existence of "transcendent truths" or of other facts that aren't reducible to mathematical symbols or reducible to countable matter.

As to the demand that I provide an logically foolproof atheist theory of morality, that is obviously not a demand that can be met in a blog post, if at all. Moreover, theists have been no more successful in meeting this challenge than atheists have been. The post shows that atheism doesn't necessarily imply moral relativism. Fully outlining and defending a specific moral theory is a separate matter.
12.15.2006 2:03am
Jim Hu:
What Prof. Somin said, in its entiety.
12.15.2006 2:08am
Cornellian (mail):
The argument is not that atheists cannot have strict moral codes but that their "systems" by dint of their own view of the world can obtain no objective truth or certain knowledge in matters relative to human affairs qua human.

Religious "systems" don't seem to be particularly good at coming up with objective truth either.
12.15.2006 2:08am
Jim Hu:
entirety, that is.
12.15.2006 2:08am
marghlar:
A challenge to the good professor: detail one moral system that you believe is atheistic and does not fall prey to the charge of moral relativism, and I will demonstrate you are wrong.

Utilitarianism. No need for a deity, and not relative at all. Hard to quantify, sure, but not relativistic at all. Nor do Kantian ethics require a deity as a starting point.

Atheism begins with the view that there is no transcendant truth available to man relative to human affairs because there is no transcendant being and that the only certain truth available to man is what he can reduce to mathematical symbol or reducible to countable matter. All else he might have opinions of or beliefs about and much support from others. But precisely because it is not reducible to quantity, it cannot be certain or what you term here to be objective truth.

You seem to be confusing atheism with materialism. One can be an atheist who believes in transcendent truths, but just not believe in one specific possible transcendental fact: that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent being that created the universe. That is distinguishable from materialism, which would lead one to ask whether any statement of transcendental "fact" even has a truth value. The two positions often coincide, as a materialist will always have great difficulty accounting for something as improbable and unprovable as a god, but they are not identical positions.

So, in summary, materialists are usually atheists, but not all atheists are materialists. Those who are not, are perfectly free to recognize transcedent moral facts, and believe that they have truth values. Now, in what respect are A and B somehow radically different, when A asserts that "X is good" because he believes based on a study of religious sources that God would not prefer X, whereas B asserts that "X is good" because he believes that moral rules are deducible from ontological facts about human existence, or simply because he believes, on faith, that all persons have a moral duty to reduce aggregate human suffering?

Anytime you try and parse some bright line between theistic and atheistic ethics, you're going to run smack into the wall of the Euthyphro problem. Either goodness is whatever god says it is, in which case it is just as arbitrary as whatever system an atheist might choose, or else there is a standard of goodness external to god, in which case both the theist and the atheist are looking for the same thing. Either way, it's a big problem for the notion of purely religious good and evil.
12.15.2006 2:22am
UK (mail):
Atheism begins with the view that there is no transcendant truth available to man relative to human affairs because there is no transcendant being and that the only certain truth available to man is what he can reduce to mathematical symbol or reducible to countable matter.

And furthermore, even if both transcendant truth and a transcendant being did exist, such truth would still not be "available to man relative to human affairs" because there is no trustworthy mechanism for transmitting or receiving that truth. End of story. Where is Prof. Dennett when we need him?

Consider that a moral system based in human nature may prove less relativistic than ones based on the various flavors of received religion, filtered as they are through human designs in diverse cultural and political pathways. Or better yet, consider that the moral systems of religion are distilled from the same evolved human (nature) sources that atheists cite directly.

Several hundred thousand years of evolved nature trumps a few thousand years of clever fiddling with right and wrong. You may choose to believe the ten commandments came from god, as implausible as that is, but it seems much more likely that they codify a long standing moral sense that is common across the human carnival.
12.15.2006 2:32am
SANE (mail):
Professor: Atheism certainly arrives at the obvious conclusion you cite. I said as much. But you simply ignore or refuse to confront the reasons for that conclusion. Since you don't wish to outline a theory on your side of the table, I did it for you at its most basic level. Now, you suggest a reverse challenge, which I will take up.

Unable to defend atheists from the charge, you challenge "theism."

Judaism and Christianity have a revealed truth. What "proof" do you want. If I sought to prove it empirically, it wouldn't be a revealed religion. But religion need not "prove" its revelation; that is the point of revelation. It is true that the Jews claim an unbroken empirical chain of title from Mount Sinai of witnesses, 600,000 adult males to be exact, which have testified generation to generation. But nowhere in their law or dicta is that claim the basis of the truth of their religion.

Now, as to the childish point made by someone in the thread that because different religions might differ on the truth, that somehow establishes the lack of truth, you certainly don't abide by that argument. I have two very young children. One comes home and says 2 times 3 equals 8. My other child says 7. I correct them both authoritatively and say one day you will learn the truth and why it is so. But for now, know it is 6.

The whole point of the atheist position, certainly the "mainstream" and important ones, are that it is precisely because you cannot prove the existence of a transendant being empirically one must not exist.

Tell me how Rand or Marx were not moral relativists? That statement is quite provocative in and of itself, and false. While Rand and Marx are of course subject to many interpretations, I leave it to you, the one who claimed a fallacy existed by virtue of the existence of other systems that were atheistic which were not relativistic, to offer some proof. It is your complaint professor. You have not even stated a cause of action.

I have simply challenged you to provide even the barebones outline of such a case. It doesn't exist.

But, I challenge the rest of your Volokh "libertarian" professors to a dual. Prove to me that liberatarianism or any other ism of an atheistic bent (adhered to by more than a few kooks) is not relativistic.

I will then demonstrate you are wrong.
12.15.2006 2:44am
Brian G (mail) (www):
Since when has "G-d" reached the same status as "bleep," "bleeping, " and "@#$!?"
12.15.2006 2:52am
marghlar:
SANE: why don't you start by enlightening us as to why all utilitarians are moral relativists.
12.15.2006 2:55am
Solid State (mail):
marghlar:
"Either goodness is whatever god says it is, in which case it is just as arbitrary as whatever system an atheist might choose, or else there is a standard of goodness external to god, in which case both the theist and the atheist are looking for the same thing."

Isn't this solved by a observation that God may be more good than man is capable of cognizing? Don't the horns of this dilema assume the sorta atheistic conclusion that cognizability by humankind is the measure of reality? This dilema doesn't seem to work if we presume humility rather than presuming that directionally focused understandings which are nonetheless not fully comprehensible are incoherent (that is, I don't understand what the teacher is trying to say... I'm trying to get it... well, I don't understand it so it must be meaningless/arbitrary). Insofar as humankind is static in development, I'll buy it... but that seems a rather radical presuposition.
12.15.2006 2:57am
SANE (mail):
To Marglar:

You suggest utilitarianism? That is most certainly relative. From whence comes the view that what is useful is the good? What is the starting point? If it is within the system, which is what I have said and it could be understood from what the essay author said, there is certainty.

But the system doesn't claim certainty outside of itself. Meaning, a utilitarian cannot claim he knows with objective certainty that his system is the correct one. He can believe it but no more.

Kant is no different and he says as much.

As to the Euthyphro dilemma you raise, the problem exists because you reduce the fact of a revealed truth to a belief. Having done that, you've rigged the outcome but ignored what it is that revealed religion asserts. And that is because you start with the proposition that there can be no revealed truth.

Also, an atheist might indeed "believe" as you say in some transcendental truth, such as the power of crystals. But it is just that. There has been no revelation outside of his own speculation of that.
12.15.2006 3:02am
SANE (mail):
And before calling it a night, to Marglar, there was no confusion in my mind between atheism and materialism. They are not co-equal but different. One is a species of the other. Night all.
12.15.2006 3:11am
marghlar:
Isn't this solved by a observation that God may be more good than man is capable of cognizing? Don't the horns of this dilema assume the sorta atheistic conclusion that cognizability by humankind is the measure of reality?

No. The dilemna exists even if humans remain totally incapable of perceiving any moral facts. Either goodness is defined internally by reference to whatever God prefers, in which case it is arbitrary, and it would be "good" for humans to rape, pillage and murder if God ordained it, or else goodness is a quality separate from God, in which case it must procede from some other source than God, and thus exists as an external fact that cannot be altered by God, in which case there existed something other than God before God created the universe, and in which case God can not be considered truly omnipotent (since he cannot alter the nature of what is good).

It is certainly one possible state of affairs that Good exists separately from God, that God is well aware of what it requires, and that the best way for humans to do Good is to follow the commands of God. But such an argument would have to exist apart from evidence, and would leave us with no ability to determine whether God was in fact behaving in this way, or if God was in fact deliberately evil, apart from our own exercise of moral reasoning. But the dilemna leads inescapably to the conclusion that either goodness is an arbitrary and tautological property of divinity, or else it is external to god, and theists and atheists alike must struggle to perceive it, using whatever methods they think best.
12.15.2006 3:12am
Jim Hu:
From the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy:
Moral relativism has the unusual distinction — both within philosophy and outside it — of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.

SANE, I suspect your definition of relativism is as different from what others would call relativism as your defnition of atheism fails to describe the fundamental properties of atheism. It is said that one can demonstrate anything from false premises. Unfortunately demonstration of this kind is neither enlightening nor entertaining.

Moral relativism in the usage I read into Jacoby is the notion that either there is no transcendant culture-independent truth value to moral judgements. Or, again quoting the Stanford Encyclopedia:

That the standards of justification in the two societies may differ from one another and that there is no rational basis for resolving these differences.

Strong relativism rejects the very notion that rational resolutions can ever be found, since it rejects the idea of 2 x 3=6 transcendent truth values in the realm of ethics. Libertarianism, as a descendant of the Enlightenment elevation of reason over revelation hardly qualifies as relativistic by this standard. In my view, very few ideologies that warrant labels as "isms" qualify, since they are usually based on claims, justified or not, that they describe the one true way to live.

quotes from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/
12.15.2006 3:29am
marghlar:
You suggest utilitarianism? That is most certainly relative. From whence comes the view that what is useful is the good? What is the starting point? If it is within the system, which is what I have said and it could be understood from what the essay author said, there is certainty.

If you think that utilitarianism defines good by reference to "what is useful," you clearly are so ill-informed as to its definition that your opinion of the theory is of little use. But I'll address your claim anyway.

You say that there is some inherent difference between "revealed truth" and probabilistic beliefs conditioned on reasoning and evidence. In the end, you are arguing from authority, and from an invisible, highly cryptic authority at that. Your "revelation" provides me with no more basis for believing that the things you say are likely to represent the good than if the same list of ethical views were propounded by my cousin Steve, or for that matter by a monkey pecking away at a typewriter. Your "revealed truth" amounts to a "because I said so," and moreover, permits of so many divergent "revealed truths" that it is hardly credible to think that everyone is listening to the same revealer.

On what basis can you prove that your "revelation" isn't just a hallucination? If you can't, you are no more "certain" of your ethical system than anyone else. And if you say "I have faith that I received a revelation," than I can say, I have faith that one ought not to cause unnecessary harm to one's fellow sapient beings. We both stand in exactly the same relation to fundamental premises which we cannot prove -- we think they are likely to be true, and assume that they are so and act as if it were the case.

Please explain to me how your revealed truth is any different from my fervent belief that everything my cousin Steve says to me is absolute truth (other than that when Steve speaks ambiguously or I am confused, I can ask him follow up questions to which he can give clear answers). You can't say that it's because your faith reveals it to be true, because my faith in Steve also reveals to me that what he says is true.

You dismiss Euthyphro without grappling with its central problem -- what is the source of goodness? If it's in god, then describing god as good is tautological and meaningless; if not, then god can do wrong (and even if he doesn't, he can't have been the alpha and omega).

In closing, SANE, I think you need to realize that you've fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be an ethical relativist. A relativist believes that there are not moral facts -- that saying that "it is true that it is morally wrong to murder" is a meaningless statement. Utilitarians are not moral relativists -- they believe that it is true that it is wrong to hurt people needlessly. They think that this is an ethical fact, and that you are wrong when you disagree with them. You think the reverse. Neither you nor they are moral relativists. You both believe that there are ethical truths, and that you know what they are.
12.15.2006 3:34am
Jim Hu:
Solid State,

Humility about our inability to comprehend all (or even some) of reality does not require invoking the existence of a G_d who can.

While I was composing the earlier reply, I see that SANE was posting a confirmation of my speculation that his use of relativism is very different from mine. I fail to see how the mechanism by which the utilitarian or Kantian atheists come to their premises is relevant to whether or not they believe them to be absolute.
12.15.2006 3:43am
marghlar:
While I was composing the earlier reply, I see that SANE was posting a confirmation of my speculation that his use of relativism is very different from mine. I fail to see how the mechanism by which the utilitarian or Kantian atheists come to their premises is relevant to whether or not they believe them to be absolute.

Agreed. Although, on an amusing level, your link to the Stanford encyclopedia proved that two can play the game of misconstruing moral relativism. I was equating it (as I tend to) with non-cognitivism, while I see from the link that some types of descriptive moral relativism would say that some moral relativsists would assert that (locally-referenced) moral propositions have truth-values. Of course, that doesn't make SANE's view of it any more reasonable (no meaningful definition of MR would equate it with all positions that do not claim an infallible access to moral truth), but it does show how important it is to be careful of terminology in these discussions.
12.15.2006 3:55am
jps:
The whole point of the atheist position, certainly the "mainstream" and important ones, are that it is precisely because you cannot prove the existence of a transendant being empirically one must not exist.

This is completely incorrect. The mainstream atheist position is that the lack of evidence for any gods means they likely do not exist.

Unable to defend atheists from the charge, you challenge "theism."

The issue is whether Christians are any more likely to behave morally than atheists. The issue is directly addressed by showing that the basis of any Christian's morality is exactly the same as an atheists. Specifically, they get it from the people around them and internally by reflection. They may say that they are receiving moral guidance from elsewhere, but of course there is no evidence of that. And in the end, the actual morality of Christians' and atheists' behavior is indistinguishable.
12.15.2006 4:10am
BobNSF (mail):
Could someone please supply an example of a transcendent truth? Any ol' objective moral truth will do. Something true across all cultures, over all time (presumably over all species, since we now know that we were once mere primates and are now the extra-special hominids god loves so much).
12.15.2006 4:56am
Trey Tomeny (mail):
God exists. Those who are unable to locate God may be focusing their search in the wrong dimensions. Within the conventional four dimensional world of time and space, evidence of God is debatable. The faithful and faithless can argue into eternity over the validity of that evidence- in the end God has designed those dimensions so that faith is required to believe.

For those able to observe the fifth and possibly higher dimensions, where God is apparent rather than merely omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, there are no doubters. This is the fundamental reason why we live in a polarized world, as some live within a four dimensional world view while others live within a 5+ dimensional world view.

Where is this mysterious, magical fifth dimension? Well, it's not so mysterious or magical- it's right there in your head as you read this right now. The fifth dimension is language- or in Biblical terms, the Word.

Nothing has a greater impact on our world than our individual and collective use of language. It is the force that overcomes the entropy that is omnipresent in four dimensions. It is what allows us to build an orderly civilizaion with a wonderful internet where we can stay up late at night and debate the existence of God and whether G-d is appropriate in naming Him.

However, not all words are entropy fighters. Some words tear down while other Words build up.

If you want evidence of God, listen. Listen to people around you speaking in the ordinary sense. Discern the spirits of the words. Do you hear those Words that are kind, loving, and building others up- those are the Words of the Holy Spirit. And do you also hear the words that are harsh, negative, and tear people down- those are words of an evil spirit.

The living Word of God surrounds us. When we turn our minds to Him, He speaks directly to us through other people.

God loves you and designed this whole world so you, like Him, have the self awareness to be able to say, like Him, I am. And beyond self awareness, He has created you in His image and His image is- Creator. You are called to join Him in His marvelous ongoing act of creation- this is what gives my life meaning and I pray gives your life meaning. We are.
12.15.2006 5:05am
U.Va. 2L (mail):

Where is this mysterious, magical fifth dimension? Well, it's not so mysterious or magical- it's right there in your head as you read this right now. The fifth dimension is language- or in Biblical terms, the Word.

Nothing has a greater impact on our world than our individual and collective use of language. It is the force that overcomes the entropy that is omnipresent in four dimensions. It is what allows us to build an orderly civilizaion with a wonderful internet where we can stay up late at night and debate the existence of God and whether G-d is appropriate in naming Him.


It's a spin on the argument from beauty that I've never heard before, but it's still just the argument from beauty.
12.15.2006 5:25am
Trey Tomeny (mail):
What is the "argument from beauty"?
12.15.2006 5:30am
Alaska Jack (mail):
And in the end, the actual morality of Christians' and atheists' behavior is indistinguishable.





I wonder if that is true, or just something we would like to believe.

- Alaska Jack
12.15.2006 5:30am
jgshapiro (mail):
Trey: when in doubt, google it.

Argument from beauty.
12.15.2006 7:01am
Trey Tomeny (mail):
Thank you, jgshapiro, for reminding me of the powerful resource of language we now have in Google, I feel pretty stupid for not thinking to do that instantly.

U. Va. 2L, now that I believe I understand what you mean by "argument from beauty", I don't comprehend how my post is at all similar to that argument from beauty.
12.15.2006 7:33am
SANE (mail):
Marghlar:

First things. Utilitarianism indeed does reference at its most basic level to usefulness. The word's meaning, in its Latin, surely does because that is its meaning. And there is good reason: the good of a thing is its contribution to overall utility (in other words, its usefulness in achievig the end). The utility at issue is usually some form of pleasure. But the crux of a thing's moral worth is in its usefulness to achieve the end sought, whatever it may be.

Second, you're confused by assuming or concluding that I am. I never proposed that revealed truth would stand tall in a moral philosopher's classroom. Religion doesn't seek to persuade a moral philosopher of its worth. I never sought to convince you nor certainly does revealed religion, in the context of a debate among moral philosophers about the logical integrity of a claim to revelation.

That burden rather falls to the man who claims to know for reasons of human demonstration or speculation that religion's claim cannot be true and his is. A man belongs to a religion out of an experience of the Divine ground of being, as it has been termed. That is not something I can even begin to discuss with you if you or the other has not experienced it; and indeed, as a participatory experience in being, even if you were a true believer, we could not discuss it as such. We could discuss our faith, but we could not penetrate the experience at the level it is lived.

Now, that might turn you off and so well it does many. But, certainly the vast majority of the world still experience this and men like Dawkins might rail at it and simply consider it a bastard child of evolution, it remains.

As to Plato's Euthyphro, it has been said by men more learned than I, that the point Plato sought to make in this dilemma is the very point I am making now.

But you remain with the challenge you and the good professor avoided by going on the offensive to "prove" revealed religion to be no more useful than a tautology. A defense of which I don't much take up.

From whence comes the base ontological position of utilitarians that man's purpose is to increase pleasure? Or, per others, to decrease pain? If we accept Bentham at his word, is it due to the observation that "nature has put man under the governance of two sovereign masters: pleasure and pain"?

Revealed religion, by being not an empirical statement about the world but a participatory experience in the Divine ground of being qua human experience of the Whole of existence, it need not confront Bentham's obligation to prove empirically or rationally how he arrives at his reduction of the world to these two masters as an ontological proposition. If he were to say it was revealed to him, fine. He would be back in the theistic boat. But he doesn't and certainly not in the way we intend it.

Anyone who claims he can make a "rational" demonstration for a revealed truth would be as you say confused. But anyone on the atheisitic side who refuses to make a "rational" demonstration of the ontological proposition being relied upon (be it U or Marxism) (since we know it is not revealed) is shall we say confused.

Your point is the rather simple one that once you have bought into U, then it is not relative since the simple statement of aggregating pleasure or avoiding pain is absolute to everyone within the system. So what? If the system itself is relative because it's fundamental ontological proposition is opinion or belief or speculation, then everything within the system when viewed from some point outside the system is relative. (By the by, Leo Strauss, now much falsely maligned as the father of neocons, made this point rather persuasively in his writings and quite demonstratively in Natural Right and History.)

And when we say "outside" we don't mean from the vantage of someone who disagrees, because that would render this discussion meaningless. It means that according to Bentham and Mill or anyone of its meaningful variants, or at least their logic, that the system is not one which has an integrity outside of itself.
12.15.2006 8:06am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
As an example, let's look at Europe. The power of the Church in Europe has been on the wane throughout the 20th century. As a result(?? yes, begging the argument), the European soul was seduced by two of the worst "-isms" in history: fascism and communism. These political systems satisfied man's craving for absolutes, but also brought about the deaths of hundreds of millions. Given those alternatives, maybe plain 'ol Christianity ain't so bad.

Are you serious? The communists and fascists took over in countries (Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain) where the Church was still officially and practically ensconced in the power structure of the state (and Nazism arose in the more devout and Catholic south of Germany, not the more secular and decadent, protestant north). The countries that resisted communism and fascism were the more liberal and secular ones.
12.15.2006 8:48am
Gary McGath (www):
The argument quoted supposes that morality is a matter of someone's wishes. It says that God's opinion overweighs anyone else's, because he made us, because he's bigger and tougher than us, or for whatever reason -- but it makes morality a matter of opinion, not standards.

That argument allows anything, if God commands it. Murder the entire population of Jericho, including the babies? There's nothing wrong with that -- if God doesn't think so. Smash an airplane into a skyscraper to kill thousands? That's fine too, depending on which version of God you follow.

The argument quoted assumes that morality is relative, either to God's wishes, or if there isn't any God, then to people's wishes. It assumes relativism, then ascribes relativism to others.
12.15.2006 8:52am
Justin (mail):
Since the Bible never spoke about Abortion, and since that Jesus never spoke about homosexuality, and the bible does not seem to differentiate much in sin between homosexuality and, say, eating pork or wearing cotton-linen clothes (both punishable by death), it does not appear to me that religion is all that much more than "an opinion" of right and wrong either.

God, of course, may give you more of a reason to value those opinions (for better or for worse), but let's not confuse the bad arguments about textualism for the even weaker arguments about the binding role that "religion" plays on one moral center.
12.15.2006 9:25am
markm (mail):

Now, as to the childish point made by someone in the thread that because different religions might differ on the truth, that somehow establishes the lack of truth, you certainly don't abide by that argument. I have two very young children. One comes home and says 2 times 3 equals 8. My other child says 7. I correct them both authoritatively and say one day you will learn the truth and why it is so. But for now, know it is 6.

It's not comparable. If you can count to 6, I can prove to you that 2x3=6. Count out 3 pennies. Count out 3 more. Now count them all.

Notice that I did that without reference to any ancient holy books or authority.
12.15.2006 9:27am
J_A:
Not many hours ago, this blog had a debate that stem out of a woman's position that God's given morality forbid her to show her face to a judge.

Though in that thread many people sided with her right to follow her understanding of her faith, that is, to refuse to uncover, I don't recall any of the commenters agreeing with her that indeed God requires women to hide her faces. On the contrary, everybody seemed to be moral relativists, where a morality that requires women to hide under a veil or that requires men to cover their heads with a yarmulka is as valid as a morality that does not require it, and to each its own.

If Morality is one, and comes from God, there is no difference between "You shall not kill" and "You shall not uncover your face in front of a strange man".

For the lady in question it was indeed a moral command, and she would rather have her lawsuit dismissed than unveil, just as many people would rather loose a lawsuit than kill another person, if that was the threshold for getting before a judge. So, which one comes from God? the veil? the "do not kill"? both? neither? How can anyone know from sure? I can't.
12.15.2006 9:36am
A.C.:
It seems to me that any given moral system, whether based in religion or not, has some relativist elements and some elements that are just built into the nature of things. Religious moral systems really do contain some oddball items -- people get into the silliest fights about what kind of hat to wear, which foods are required and which are forbidden, and when to observe a day of rest. Even observant people have to agree that at least some of that is pure tribalism. Wearing the "right" hat may be a visible sign that a person is trying to live a moral life, but it isn't morality as such. Most religions I know of have sarcastic names for people who think it is.

But pretty much every system ends up with certain core values. Take care of children and sick people. Don't kill or steal randomly. Try to help the poor. Offer hospitality. Don't be a a jerk. Interpretations differ, of course. Can you kill in self-defense, and what exactly does that mean? Is it best to help the poor by means of charity, socialism, or letting capitalism generate more wealth? What's the best way to take care of children? But I submit that nobody would apply the word "moral" to a system of thought that advocated torturing children and sick people, killing and stealing randomly, exploiting the poor maliciously, preying on strangers and travelers, and generally being a jerk.

Assuming we are talking about an issue of the second type, and that we are actually trying to arrive at a "correct" interpretation of the rules rather being jerks for the heck of it, what aids to interpretation do we have? Religion is one, and other systems have been put forth. I happen to think that the more sophisticated religious systems -- the ones that have grown up over time and that seem to have staying power -- work best precisely because they make you keep transcendent truths in mind at the same time you make all the extremely non-transcendent trade-offs that real life demands. You can't just say "greatest good for the greatest number" to justify pulling the plug on a patient who is terminal. You have to keep the tragic nature of the choice in mind the whole time, whichever way you end up going in the end.

It's the opposite of moral certainty (and therefore the opposite of most fundamentalisms), but somehow it manages to be the opposite of moral relativism at the same time. I think you can get there without personified deities, but I don't think you can get there without some notion of transcendence, wisdom, goodness, etc. that extends beyond everyday activity. That extra level is essential, whatever you call it.
12.15.2006 9:48am
James Dillon (mail):
Excellent post, but I think you overlook perhaps the most important response: whatever the social consequences of atheism may be, they are irrelevant to its ontological status. Personally I am an atheist because I find that view to be the most reasonable interpretation of the available evidence pertaining to the existence of God. While I reject the idea that atheism produces negative social consequences, I would hold to my atheism even if I were convinced that it did produce such negative consequences, because, as I see it, holding true beliefs is a wiser course than encouraging false beliefs for the purpose of social stability.
12.15.2006 9:53am
bchurchhowe (mail):
SANE--

It seems you might still be confused as to what moral relativism actually means. An ethical thoery is relativist based on to whom it applies (ie., an antonym to universal), and not based on its source (be it reason, inspiration, or some sort of perceived supernatural command). Otherwise you're left with the rather silly idea that Utilitarianism could avoid being "relativist" (by your apparent definition) if John Stuart Mill had left every one of its edicts unchanged, but simply claimed that a unicorn came to him in a dream and dictated it to him.

What you are arguing is that ethical theories are only valid if their source is supernatural. You're welcome to believe this, but it has nothing to do with the standard definition of moral relativism.
12.15.2006 10:09am
Mr. X (www):
Could we please have a moratorium on "G-d"? It's "God", for God's sake.


Actually, it's The All-Powerful Flying Spaghetti Monster, if you want to get technical.
12.15.2006 10:10am
just me:
Yes, theists often accuse atheists of being incapable of morality. But the equation of theism and morals runs both ways, and many atheists are inconsistent on this, in my view. Often, when a school or other government entity promotes a purely moral view, even if the school or entity does so in strictly secular language, and even if the moral view in question can be justified by purely secular reasoning, someone is likely to complain that an establishment of religion is occurring.

Take, for example, the hot button of abortion. Atheist pro-lifers can and do exist. Sure, as a factual matter many people come to their beliefs thru their religious beliefs, but that is true of anti-racism as well, as has often been debated on these pages. But try to promote policies restricting abortions, and even if you NEVER mention God, you will be accused of imposing religion per se. That, to me, is using the formula that everything promoting morals is inherently promoting God/religion.

Two-way streets are so inconvenient.
12.15.2006 10:28am
frankcross (mail):
The percentage of atheists in prison is certainly lower than their percentage in the general population.
12.15.2006 10:30am
bchurchhowe (mail):
just me--

How does being an athiest prevent one from arguing that schools should not be taking sides on hot button ethical issues, religious or otherwise? What about theists who believe religion shouldn't be taught in public schools, are they hypocrites as well? Athiesm is nothing more or less than a lack of belief in God-- in no way does it tie one into supporting any and all secular arguments as appropriate in any and all contexts.
12.15.2006 10:45am
Platon:
The vast majority of people who link atheism with moral relativism are not familiar with the fact that Plato buried any theological grounding for ethics more than two thousand years ago in the Euthyphro
12.15.2006 11:00am
American revival:
Atheism is death. G-d is life.
12.15.2006 11:08am
JosephSlater (mail):
Best. Ilya. Somin. Post. Ever.
12.15.2006 11:11am
SANE (mail):
to bchurchhowe: We are in agreement. Moral relativism as you set it out is what it is. And this is what I said when I responded to Marghlar. ("What is the starting point? If it is within the system, which is what I have said and it could be understood from what the essay author said, there is certainty.")

What you say is standard fare for a moral philosophy course. This is how the subject is taught given the framework from which this discussion is usually had. But there are plenty of smart men who reject this framework and "standard definitions." I mentioned Strauss. You can add Eric Voegelin who set out a life's work critiquing the notion that moral philosophy can be had outside of the "Divine ground of Being." He referred to most of the modern attempts, the thrust of the comments and their disdain for the claim of revealed truth, as gnostic. But I don't need to make the argument. The point is now that we have semantics behind us, let's address the substantive issue you raise independent of the definition used in the typical university classroom.

You say Bentham could have solved the silly problem my argument raises by keeping the content of his system intact and having a revelation from a unicorn. And indeed that would be a resolution but why is it silly? You and the majority of the world might find the particular claim of the unicorn to be silly, but that merely goes back to the issue that there most certainly can be (and are) competing claims of a revelatory experience incompatible one with the other. But the particular silliness of the claim or the fact that there are such competing claims does not affect the validity of the claim of the human experience of revelation. The revelatory experience is what it is because it comes from an experience not reducible to counting or rationcination.

Finally, I have never said that a moral or ethical system is not "valid" if it does not come from revealed religion. Indeed, even the essay originally quoted does not make that claim. Is there any doubt that a man might rationally conclude that murder and mayhem is a bad thing for himself and his society? A man might very well live his life attuned to a revelatory experience or claim of one and still conduct his moral life per his own rational thought fully independent of the revelatory experience. That revelatory experiences also bring moral guidance is an addition to the ontological experience.

I simply made the point that it was indeed "relative" in the way that we have now understood the term. You might think that the revelation at Mount Sinai or of Jesus to be as silly as the unicorn, but your argument does not touch upon my point that Bentham's and Marx's theories are predicated on the idea that man has no access to a transcendental truth available to all men at all times everywhere UNTIL you buy into their system. The revealed religions say this truth is there and it controls whether you buy into it or not.
12.15.2006 11:11am
thewagon:
From whence comes the base ontological position of utilitarians that man's purpose is to increase pleasure? Or, per others, to decrease pain?

This is the crux of the matter, and a question to which SANE will not get a straight answer. Ultimately, everyone always appeals to an unprovable, unquantifiable, presupposed truth that they just believe.
12.15.2006 11:13am
American revival:
such hate toward the faithful here. I detect insecurity and fear of that they do not understand. Also the fear of death which plagues secular humanists who have nothing to believe in or live for. Just hedonism and nilalism. So sad.
12.15.2006 11:14am
CJColucci:
God is dead, but don't tell the help. If the only reason they don't rob, rape, and kill us is their belief in Somebody Out There, then the last thing we want to do is disabuse them of that belief.
12.15.2006 11:14am
lsu (mail):
Were they atheists before they were sent to prison or after?
12.15.2006 11:18am
AnandaG:
thewagon: As at least three people in this thread have unsuccessfully attempted to explain to you and SANE, atheism is merely the denial of the existence of God. It is not the denial of the existence of unprovable, unquantifiable, presupposed truths. How can it be put any plainer?

I was going to write a post called "Shorter SANE", but it was too short even to be funny.
12.15.2006 11:18am
U.Va. 1L:

"The atheist alternative is a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion, and in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves." (from original post)


Is this really disputed? It's not that atheism leads people to not be decent members of society. One of my college roommates and closest friends is an atheist and he's a great guy--in many respects a model citizen.

Yet, the key distinction between those who believe in God and atheists is the source of morality. The Judeo-Christian worldview teaches that humans have special value because God created them and assigned special value to them. They are "created in the image of God." Unlike all other living things, they have an eternal soul (or, more precisely, humans are eternal souls with temporal bodies).

It is not merely a fear of divine punishment that leads adherents of the Judeo-Christian worldview to behave morally, though there is perhaps an element of that. The distinction is that people are objectively valuable and deserve to be treated well. It's not just that if I murder you I would invoke God's wrath (I would), but also that murdering you would destroy a thing of objective value.

Now, certainly an atheist can adopt a moral system. There are many to choose from or he could design his own from scratch. But whether it is his own or someone else's (such as society's) that he adopts, it is ultimately arbitrary. Unless we believe in the "ghost in the machine" as discussed above, what makes humans in any real sense more valuable than animals? Why is it murder to take the life of a human but preparing dinner to take the life of a cow? If the only difference between humans and cows is that we are more evolved, why should that create a basis for special value? If all of life as we know it is the product of unguided, random mutations over billions of years, humans don't have any objective value. We are just another link in an unending evolutionary chain, eventually to be replaced by superior beings.

But back to the main point, any moral system an atheist adopts is ultimately his choice, his preference. For example, Kant's Categorical Imperative says we should "act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law." (Interestingly similar to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Matthew 7:12) But, on what basis could such an adherent criticize another atheist who adopted another conflicting moral system? Perhaps one could adopt a view that superior beings can do whatever they want to inferior beings. You could adopt an IQ measurement, a physical prowess measurement, or any other measure of "superiority." But, clearly such a view would contradict the categorical imperative. Yet, to dispute the superiority of a moral system one could only make two kinds of appeals: (1) You could appeal to the effectiveness of a moral system in sustaining an orderly society. A "which works better" kind of approach. Of course, that creates the problem of defending why your view of civilization is better. Basically, this is an appeal to some sense of morality that is common to a majority of people, a democratic approach to morality. Clearly it would be difficult to have a civilized society as we generally understand it if "might makes right" was the guiding moral principle. But, an appeal to society intrinsically says that "moral rightness" equals the views of 50% + 1 of the people. There would be no basis for arguing for minority rights because, by definition, they would be minority wrongs. (2) You could appeal to a higher authority. However, as an atheist what higher authority can you appeal to than nature? How do the laws of nature spawn laws of morality? If there is no "ghost in the machine" and no "ghost outside of the machine," and all we have is nature, in the end it's hard to see how nature can tell us how we ought to behave. Nature can tell us what we're made of, but not how we should act.

So, atheism doesn't lead to immoral behavior, per se. Plenty of atheists choose to live in such a way that their lives conform to societal norms. Many are genuinely kind people--even in ways that go beyond societal norms. But all that means is that their subjective choices conform to the subjective choices of others...or that their subjective choices happen to conform to the objective moral standards imposed by a higher authority.

Morality either derives from a higher authority than nature or derives from the preferences of purely natural beings. And if the preferences of any two natural beings differ, how to resolve that difference? Perhaps, in a nature only world, in the end might (physical or political) does make right...
12.15.2006 11:19am
pcrh (mail):
So many posts...anyway bchurchhowe argued that moral relativism doesn't have to do with the source of morality, but instead deals with to whom it applies:

An ethical thoery is relativist based on to whom it applies (ie., an antonym to universal), and not based on its source (be it reason, inspiration, or some sort of perceived supernatural command).

I don't think so. Moral relativism just means that morality is not absolute--that an act can be seen as moral by one person and immoral by another, and that neither is "right." The real distinction is not between relativism and objectivism, but between relative morality and absolute morality. If you believe in a supernatural source for morality, humans are irrelevant, and what is immoral for one is immoral for all. Even objective morality is not absolute morality. One can be an objectivist and not believe in an absolute morality. Reason can lead one to objective moral laws that are always applicable. However, when humans are gone, those moral laws go away. In that way, they are not absolute moral laws. But God gives absolute moral law, and even if all humans are gone, that absolute moral code would still exist.
12.15.2006 11:27am
James Dillon (mail):
pcrh,

To whom would God's absolute moral code apply in the absence of human beings? In what sense do moral laws exist if there are no moral agents to be bound by them?
12.15.2006 11:31am
paulhager (mail) (www):
For a long time I refused to use the word "moral" because it is so hopelessly freighted with religious meaning. Now I use the word "moral" to mean evolved social behavior. "Evolved" is the key word because behavior that promotes group solidarity, stability, and successful procreation among social animals will be selected for - behavior that promotes a lack of group cohesion, instability, and declining fertility will be selected against. As mammalian primates, we really don't need to puzzle about what is "moral" because we're already pre-programmed to accept it.

Here's a "moral universal" for you, courtesy of Rabbi Hillel: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor." This is the negative variant of the Golden Rule and is pretty close to, if not in fact what the socio-biologists would call an Environmentally Stable Strategy (ESS). "Moral" behaviors are essentially ESS's - they are demonstrably objective and not at all relativistic.

Nature is replete with examples of "moral" behavior among social mammals (predator pack and plant eating herd animals). Kinship obviously plays a major factor in "moral" behavior but modern homo sapiens have, through natural selection, expanded moral behavior to included unrelated others. And I emphasize "through natural selection."

The problem arises in discussions of "morality" when they revolve around "philosophy" divorced from science. If we put things in scientific terms, we can do a much better job of discussing what is objectively moral and what is not. Robert Heinlein, incidentally, was talking about moral absolutes before sociobiology caught on. One of the moral absolutes - the need to insure the existence of the next generation - he described as "women and children first". Smart man, that Mr. Heinlein.
12.15.2006 11:34am
Mark Field (mail):
Everyone else has dealt very well with SANE's other points, so let me just go back to this one:


As to the Buddhist remark, Buddhism is not atheism. It began as a non-theistic religion, but it most certainly teaches the existence of a transcendant truth valid for all people at all times in all places and one that is not accessible empirically.


My comment about Buddhists was in response to this passage from Jacoby: "What society loses when it discards Judeo-Christian faith and belief in G-d is something far more difficult to replace: the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society."

Jacoby tied ethical behavior not to "transcendent truth" (as you put it), but specifically to the Judeo-Christian God.* Without going into the merits of your view of Buddhism, Buddhists do serve as a counter-example to Jacoby's claim.

*I'm skeptical that the God of Jews and Christians can be equated for this purpose. While most Christians today don't emphasize it, official doctrine in most denominations remains that no one goes to heaven except through Christ.
12.15.2006 11:39am
James Dillon (mail):
U.Va. 1L,


Perhaps, in a nature only world, in the end might (physical or political) does make right...


How exactly is this different than a theist's world, in which the "good" is defined by the fiat of a purportedly omnipotent being and backed with the threat of eternal damnation? Why, other than deference to power, should we accept God's own assertion that It is good? There's an awful lot of things in the Bible that God supposedly commanded that strike me as abhorrently evil.

That aside, what exactly is your point? Even if we accept your argument that a secular theory of morality lacks the universally imperative nature that theistic morality enjoys (an assertion that I reject for the reasons noted above), then the point I made earlier becomes even more relevant-- the ontological status of atheism is not affected by its social consequences. In other words, God either exists or does not exist, and the truth of God's existence is affected not in the slightest by whatever consequences it might have on the moral behavior of human beings. Even if we accept the suggestion that people are more likely to behave morally if they believe in God, that argument provides no reason to actually believe in God, assuming that we want our beliefs to accurately reflect reality.
12.15.2006 11:46am
Dan Hamilton:
The problem is that when you identify someone as atheists you have not said much. He doesn't believe in God. That's it. You know NOTHING else.

If you identify someone as Christian. You know alot about their beliefs. Not all of course but a lot. The same goes for any religion.

Weither the atheist is moral or not you can't know even if you know his actions because you don't have a clue what he believes in. That is a problem.

It is not a belief in moral relativism to recognize that different people/religions have different moral codes. What one considers moral may be totally wrong by another. This is not a statement that the Others moral code is just as right as yours (only moral relativist say that) but that it is sincere and different. A Thugee's belief that murder is moral doesn't mean we agree with him. It just means that as we hang him we know that he by his sincere beliefs was a moral man. Doesn't stop us from hanging him or believing that his moral code is WRONG.
12.15.2006 11:50am
Jay D:

So, in summary, materialists are usually atheists, but not all atheists are materialists. Those who are not, are perfectly free to recognize transcedent moral facts, and believe that they have truth values.marghlar


Atheism taken to its logical self-consistant conclusion is materialistic. There is zero foundation within atheism to build a set of "transcedent moral facts" from the ground up. Any transcedent moral facts that a self-proclaimed atheist believes in were received by philosophical inertia from theism.
12.15.2006 11:56am
Grover Gardner (mail):
Some responses and a question:

"If the only difference between humans and cows is that we are more evolved, why should that create a basis for special value?"

If cows could talk, and tell us how they feel, would we still kill them for dinner?

"I detect insecurity and fear of that they do not understand. Also the fear of death which plagues secular humanists who have nothing to believe in or live for."

You're projecting. I don't read anything like that here. And one could just as easily say that fear of death drives people toward a fable that assuages their fears.

Also, in general: if God doesn't exist, then whence the Bible?
12.15.2006 12:17pm
Kimberly:

On what basis can you prove that your "revelation" isn't just a hallucination? If you can't, you are no more "certain" of your ethical system than anyone else. And if you say "I have faith that I received a revelation," than I can say, I have faith that one ought not to cause unnecessary harm to one's fellow sapient beings. We both stand in exactly the same relation to fundamental premises which we cannot prove -- we think they are likely to be true, and assume that they are so and act as if it were the case.

This may be too simplistic for the likes of this board, but revelation for Jews and Christians comes from the manifestations of God in the world - from Moses receiving the Ten Commandments to, for Christians, the ultimate manifestation: the incarnation of God as Man, in Jesus Christ, who was born of a human mother, lived, was put to death, and then rose from the dead. He wasn't an apparition or hallucination. As God, he was the Truth. Believing the revelations of God-as-Man and God in the world requires faith, but does not mean Christians stand in the same relations to truth premises as utilitarians or atheists stand in relation to truth premises.


Since the Bible never spoke about Abortion, and since that Jesus never spoke about homosexuality, and the bible does not seem to differentiate much in sin between homosexuality and, say, eating pork or wearing cotton-linen clothes (both punishable by death), it does not appear to me that religion is all that much more than "an opinion" of right and wrong either.

Oh, please. If you're going to use any examples, these are poor ones - the Bible says "Thou shalt not kill," which perfectly clearly covers abortion; the Bible condemns homosexuality (along with all sexual sin and activity outside of marriage); and the Bible perfectly well distinguishes between homosexuality and cotton linen clothing for Christians by the nature of Jesus Christ in the history of salvation -- Christ was the new covenant, so most of the old (external) purity rules were no longer necessary to keep the covenant of salvation, but only baptism (but many laws regarding internal purity and morality were affirmed).
12.15.2006 12:18pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

The communists and fascists took over in countries (Russia, Italy, Germany, Spain) where the Church was still officially and practically ensconced in the power structure of the state (and Nazism arose in the more devout and Catholic south of Germany, not the more secular and decadent, protestant north).
Naziism came out of a very secular tradition: socialism. Until 1931, the National Socialists were really and truly socialists. (See their 1924 party platform and the quite serious socialism of Gregor Strasser.) heir political opponents right up to the end included the Catholic parties in Germany.

Italian Fascism also comes out of the socialist tradition; Mussolini was editor of the Italian Socialist Party newspaper until just a couple of years before founding the Fascist Party.

Spanish Fascism doesn't really have that much (but name) in common with Italian Fascism or German National Socialism.

The countries that resisted communism and fascism were the more liberal and secular ones.
You mean like Catholic Poland and France? Like the fiercely Christian United States and Canada? Like Britain?

J.F. Thomas, as usual, knows no history.
12.15.2006 12:25pm
pcrh (mail):

To whom would God's absolute moral code apply in the absence of human beings? In what sense do moral laws exist if there are no moral agents to be bound by them?


Ah, that question itself presumes moral relativity. God is supposed to be the moral agent, in the thiest view.

I was only trying to get away from the relativist/objectivist distinction, and point out the absolute/inabsolute (or relativist) moral law distinction. Athiests can be moral objectivists, but they cannot subscribe to an absolute moral law. Example: An athiest can use reason and arrive that a given moral law should apply to everyone. He can reject the idea that someone has the right to gainsay his opinion. This belief would make his moral law objective--he doesn't think it depends on opinion, but on necessary reason. He could use syllogism, for example, starting with very basic facts (like existence, and free will) to arrive at an objective moral code. Hence, this athiest is not a moral relatavist.

But still he wouldn't subscribe to the idea of an absolute moral code. Only a supernatural entity can provide that. Because, as you point out, once all moral actors are absent, there are no more morals. Nietzche said:

There are no moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena.

But if God exists, then we mere mortals need not exist in order for morality to exist.

And if you take away God? Well, to a thiest, that question is not to be asked. But you are right, without God, there is no "absolute" moral code either, for lack of a moral actor.
12.15.2006 12:27pm
U.Va. 1L:
James Dillon,

While I reject the idea that atheism produces negative social consequences, I would hold to my atheism even if I were convinced that it did produce such negative consequences, because, as I see it, holding true beliefs is a wiser course than encouraging false beliefs for the purpose of social stability.

I read this earlier but forgot to reply to it in the midst of writing my previous post. I was going to commend you for that point. I agree that the existence of God is neither proved nor refuted by the social consequences of such a belief.

How exactly is this different than a theist's world, in which the "good" is defined by the fiat of a purportedly omnipotent being and backed with the threat of eternal damnation? Why, other than deference to power, should we accept God's own assertion that It is good?

Well, I could suggest any number of reasons but I'll just offer one. In the Judeo-Christian understanding, God is both the creator of the universe and all-knowing. In other words, God knows best. Moreover, God cares for his creation. It's not just that we ought to obey out of fear of punishment, but because it makes sense to defer to an infinitely wiser being. This is similar to why it makes sense for children to defer to their parents. A mother might tell her young son not to stick his fingers in electrical outlets. The child would probably obey partly out of fear of being disciplined, but also he would probably trust that his mother knew better that it is a bad idea to stick fingers in electrical outlets. I'm sure there's a better illustration than this, but the point is that it just makes good sense to follow the rules of a wiser being that cares for us--and how much more so an infinite, all-knowing being that designed the entire universe.

As you said, this is not a persuasive argument for God's existence. It just is to show how morality derived from God's laws is distinct from morality derived from any other source.

I'll probably leave further discussion to others. I have an ever so exciting civil procedure final to study for. Yay tests. :-/
12.15.2006 12:30pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
I agree with Professor Somin about this. I haven't seen an enormous difference in morality between atheists and believers over the years. People tend to either rein in their evil desires, or they don't. If they are believers, they spend a lot of time feeling guilty, praying for forgiveness, and rationalizing that their sins weren't really all that bad. If they are atheists, they justify it all as being necessary for the greater good of socialism, or not really a bad thing.
12.15.2006 12:41pm
Gordo:
Another point regarding atheism - the ability of an atheist to hold moral beliefs and values requires more thought and internal analysis than most people are capable of.
12.15.2006 12:57pm
Grover Gardner (mail):
"...the ability of an atheist to hold moral beliefs and values requires more thought and internal analysis than most people are capable of."

Capable of, or willing to do?
12.15.2006 1:12pm
bchurchhowe (mail):
SANE,

You say:

You might think that the revelation at Mount Sinai or of Jesus to be as silly as the unicorn, but your argument does not touch upon my point that Bentham's and Marx's theories are predicated on the idea that man has no access to a transcendental truth available to all men at all times everywhere UNTIL you buy into their system. The revealed religions say this truth is there and it controls whether you buy into it or not.


I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at. On one hand you fault secular ethics for giving no "access" to transcendental truth until one "buys into" a particular system. But how is this different from religious, "revealed" ethics? How does one have access to Christianity's transcedntal ethical truths without "buying into" its system, either through revelation or conversion? There are plenty of religious "truths" promoted in the world, many of which are contradictory. How does one know which "truth" is the correct one?

And why couldn't Kant have said that his categorical imperative was a logical truth of ethics that was waiting to be discovered (assuming you allow that there are non supernatural logical truths that have been and can be "discovered")? What prevents Kant from claiming that his categorical imperative has always been the proper judge of behavior, and applying it retroactively? Surely something similar must have happened when Abrahamic religions first came on the scene.
12.15.2006 1:18pm
marghlar:
Another point regarding atheism - the ability of an atheist to hold moral beliefs and values requires more thought and internal analysis than most people are capable of.

Not really. Just more than they are used to using. Indeed, one thing that might explain Frank Cross's statistic is that, as they have to think more carefully about the source of their ethics, atheists are likely to have a much more thorough understanding of their ethics than theists, on average.
12.15.2006 1:39pm
marghlar:
SANE, bcchurchowe beat me to it. It seems really problemmatic for this dichotomy you wish to set up between the absolutism of theistic moral beliefs and the defects you see in an individual believing in an ethical code based on reason and observation, that if you convinced me that you were right, and revelation was the way to go, I get to pick between literally thousands of competing articulations of revealed truth. So many religions are in the business of giving me access to revealed truths, which seem to be different based on what the adherents of each say about them, that I am at a loss how to pick. Since looking to ethical standards based solely on reason and judgment seems to be disfavored, how am I to choose my revelation?

What if I choose Thuggism (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thuggie), and it is now revealed to me that the Goddess wants me to murder travelers? Is the absolutism of this belief (produced, as I understand you, by its mystical or theologic source rather than through philosopher's methods of reason and judgment) really such a comfort?
12.15.2006 1:52pm
marghlar:
This is the crux of the matter, and a question to which SANE will not get a straight answer. Ultimately, everyone always appeals to an unprovable, unquantifiable, presupposed truth that they just believe.

The Is-Ought problem is a big one in metaethical philosophy, I grant you that. But the Euthyphro dilemna shows that it is just as much of a problem for religious morality.
12.15.2006 1:56pm
r78:

A challenge to the good professor: detail one moral system that you believe is atheistic and does not fall prey to the charge of moral relativism,

That asks exactly the wrong question.

I challenge you to detail one moral system that you believe is theistic and does not fall prey to charge of moral relativism.

Every religion trims its sails to comport with culture (and vice versa)
12.15.2006 1:59pm
Jim Hu:
SANE:
If the system itself is relative because it's fundamental ontological proposition is opinion or belief or speculation, then everything within the system when viewed from some point outside the system is relative.

Light bulb comes on (perhaps dimly). OK, maybe I get it now. You're taking a descriptive moral relativist stance here, and arguing that faith is your way of anchoring moral philosophy to an external referent. The key being that religion need not answer to the demand of rational explanation precisely because it is an external referent.

Thus, when you argue that the morality of utilitarianism or marxism or libertarianism or Kant's categorical imperative are relative, you are not arguing that they share your relativist view. You're arguing for the correctness of your descriptive relativist view. A rough analogy: those who believe that the earth or the sun or Andromeda is the center of the universe may not be relativist within their own cosmologies, but a post-Einstein cosmology recognizes that each of these is a relative frame of reference. Am I getting warm?

Pushing the analogy, our current cosmology does posit a central point for the origin of the big bang, and astrophysics provides methods that can approximate its location relative to our place in the universe. For you, faith does what astrophysics does in the analogy. It locates the center.

It sounds like you go beyond descriptive relativism to a modified metaethical relativism (within the frame of moral philosophy) by arguing that the center of the moral universe is inaccessible in the absence of faith.
12.15.2006 2:02pm
marghlar:
This may be too simplistic for the likes of this board, but revelation for Jews and Christians comes from the manifestations of God in the world - from Moses receiving the Ten Commandments to, for Christians, the ultimate manifestation: the incarnation of God as Man, in Jesus Christ, who was born of a human mother, lived, was put to death, and then rose from the dead. He wasn't an apparition or hallucination. As God, he was the Truth. Believing the revelations of God-as-Man and God in the world requires faith, but does not mean Christians stand in the same relations to truth premises as utilitarians or atheists stand in relation to truth premises.

I wasn't saying that your beliefs are necessarily based on hallucination, Kimberley. I was talking to SANE, who had asserted that one can have absolute confidence in religious beliefs in a way that was different than other beliefs adopted based on faith, reason and evidence. He asserted that the basis of this was revelation.

My question about hallucination was meant to show that he can't be entirely certain that his faith produces true answers, as every experience on which his faith is based might well be a hallucination. His god might in fact be a Cartesian Demon. Or he might be a brain in an alien vat somewhere. As such, his truths are necessarily no more infallible than anyone else's -- they are based on his interpretations of his experiences, and his reasoning about them. At bottom, he stands in the same epistemic relation with his faith-based revelatory truth as does a philosopher who is confident that his ethics represent absolute truth. If either assert absolute confidence, they are epistemically naive.

Now, both can say that they think their beliefs are probably true, and that they are justified in believing them to be true on that basis. Then, they can argue over who has a better basis for belief, since their asserted "truths" are incompatible. But that has nothing to do with the question of whether one has some sort of epistemically privileged position vis a vis his ethical assertions.
12.15.2006 2:03pm
marghlar:
Jim Hsu: I would have said it more simply: SANE thinks that his revelatory ethics are absolute truth. As such, he thinks that he is justified in believing them in a way that is different from anyone else who might claim a justified belief in an opposing asserted truth. His knowledge is better because he happens to be right, and he knows that he is right solely because god revealed this to him. Thus, everyone else is mucking about in a fog of error, because SANE knows the truth.
12.15.2006 2:09pm
Aleks:
Re: Atheism taken to its logical self-consistant conclusion is materialistic.

why? Atheism merely asserts that no god(s) exist. It makes no comment on the existence on non-divine orders of reality above and beyond the one we live in.

Re; and the Bible perfectly well distinguishes between homosexuality and cotton linen clothing for Christians by the nature of Jesus Christ in the history of salvation -- Christ was the new covenant, so most of the old (external) purity rules were no

Actually I have read commentary by learned rabbis and Christian scholars both which state that most of the Bible's sexual regulation (homosexuality, sex with menstruating women, etc.) was part of the purity law not the moral law. However within the text of the Bible itself it is not possible to distinguish two separate laws, one for purity and the other for morality. That distinction was quiet alien to the ancient Hebrews and it is largely an invention of much later scholars (both Christian and Jewish) who want to dispense with some portions of the Law but not the whole shebang.
12.15.2006 2:24pm
paulhager (mail) (www):
pcrh observes:

But if God exists, then we mere mortals need not exist in order for morality to exist.

And if you take away God? Well, to a thiest [sic], that question is not to be asked. But you are right, without God, there is no "absolute" moral code either, for lack of a moral actor.



I state above that "moral" behavior doesn't require the existence of a deity. We can see ample evidence of altruistic behavior, for example, both in non-pack and pack animals. Unless one is so divorced from scientific reality as to be a young-Earth creationist, it is safe to say that the behaviors we observe in animals today preexisted the emergence of modern homo sapiens sapiens onto the scene. Those "moral" behaviors can be observed in human beings so it's much more reasonable to assume they have a natural rather than a supernatural origin.

I suppose it is true that "moral" behaviors are not "absolute" if we define "absolute" as meaning unvarying. However, an ESS (see above) comes pretty damn close to being an absolute. It means that when a similar kind of enviroment (broadly defined) exists anywhere in the universe, the same behaviors will emerge. They would appear to be "moral absolutes" but no God is required. Think of it as a manifestation of convergent evolution. Proof of my statement must, of course, await the first expedition to, say, Tau Ceti IV and the discovery of intelligent pond scum that has an "absolute moral code" strikingly similar to ours.
12.15.2006 2:43pm
CJColucci:
If you identify someone as Christian. You know alot about their beliefs. Not all of course but a lot. The same goes for any religion.

Weither the atheist is moral or not you can't know even if you know his actions because you don't have a clue what he believes in. That is a problem.


When I identify someone as a Christian, I know next to nothing about that person's moral character. Until I have had a long theological discussion with him, I don't know much about what he believes and don't know if he knows, either. I certainly have no basis for judging how he will act even if I make plausible guesses about what he believes.

Do you really go about in fear that atheists are more likely to rob, rape, or kill you because you don't know much about what they believe? Do you really have doubts about a person's ethics because you disagree with his metaphysics? If so, this is nothing you can be argued out of because you weren't argued into it. The only cure is to get out more. I recommend it.
12.15.2006 3:07pm
AnandaG:
Atheism taken to its logical self-consistant conclusion is materialistic.
No it isn't. (There, see, I can argue just like SANE and the other theists!)

Seriously, if you think this, here's a worksheet with some premises and a conclusion:

1. There's no God (atheism)
2.
3.
4.
5. Conclusion: Everything is physical.

Please fill in one or more premises in the 2-4 spaces such that (5) follows from the others.

There is zero foundation within atheism to build a set of "transcedent moral facts" from the ground up.
If atheism were a meta-ethical view, this might be troubling to atheists. Luckily, since atheism isn't a meta-ethical view, this observation is about as important as "There is zero foundation within Mormonism to build a set of rules for repairing my refrigerator from the ground up."

Any transcedent moral facts that a self-proclaimed atheist believes in were received by philosophical inertia from theism.
Nah. (See? I can still do it!)
12.15.2006 3:17pm
SeaDrive (mail):
You may come to rather different views about truth and objectivity if your favourite example of an inquiry is "what time is it?" or "how do we get to Marble Arch?" as opposed to "is humanism a myth?" or "was Nietzsche a fascist?"
Simon Blackburn
--Prospect April 2003
12.15.2006 3:33pm
Tom952 (mail):
Wow - 99 posts.

You don't need a supernatural God to have right and wrong. For example, you and your friends can decide murder is wrong because you see the undesirable results when murder is practiced. Stealing and fraud are mostly illegal because of the exigencies of an organized society rather than some religious proscription. The Ninth Commandment doesn't stop many believers from making false accusations. The assertion that you need a supernatural God is merely an attempt by non-atheists to preempt morality as their own exclusive trait. "You're either with us, or you're immoral!" Co-opt-ing (?) is a favored coercive tactic of religions.
12.15.2006 3:58pm
Michael B (mail):
What Ilya forwarded is the claim that there is a fallacy involved, not a mere disagreement of informed opinion. Assumming the excerpt is a reliable indicator, Jacoby is not forwarding a philosophical argument formally understood. Jacoby's piece is in the nature of Dostoevsky's "if there is no God, anything is permissible," it's forwarded as opinion/persuasion, not in formal terms. By contrast Ilya is suggesting, with the idea of "fallacy," that a formal refutation can be successfully argued.

It would be similar to an atheist stating (without presuming to formally prove) that "god does not exist," and then a theist states, "no, there's a fallacy there" (or vice versa). I believe Dostoevsky is right, but I doubt either arguments are subject to philosophical proofs, pro or con.

Ilya set the bar high, in forwarding the idea of a fallacy, and neither he nor anyone in this thread has met that challenge.

(Likewise, AnandaG, when you state "atheism isn't a meta-ethical view" you're forwarding a contrary assertion only, ironically, very much in the mold your sarcasm had been directed at. The degree to which it is, or is not, is part of the set of problems, not resolved via fiat.)
12.15.2006 4:07pm
marghlar:
(Likewise, AnandaG, when you state "atheism isn't a meta-ethical view" you're forwarding a contrary assertion only, ironically, very much in the mold your sarcasm had been directed at. The degree to which it is, or is not, is part of the set of problems, not resolved via fiat.)

No, it's not a problem; it's resolved as a definitional matter.

A metaethical question is a question about what it means to say that "A ought to do X." It is a question of the meaning of the language of ethics. Atheism is an ontological statement about the world: "God does not exist."

Atheism does have a metaethical implication, even though atheism isn't a theory of metaethics. Atheism logically implies that one possible metaethical theory, divine command theory, is necessarily false. One can't simultaneously think that whatever God wills is by definition good, and think that God does not exist.

But that doesn't make that ontological statement a metaethical statement. It just means that one's views about the real world have metaethical implications. There are numerous possible metaethical theories, including both objectivist and non-objectivist theories, that are compatible with atheism. Thus, your assertion that atheism may or may not be a meta-ethical theory is false definitionally. A metaethical theory by definition must command certain responses to metaethical questions. Atheism may reduce the number of possible acceptable metaethical theories, but it doesn't tell you which one to pick. Thus, it isn't a "theory" of metaethics.
12.15.2006 4:17pm
Michael B (mail):
"No, it's not a problem ..." marghlar

It is a problem and I didn't say it was a metaethical theory per se. But such reflects a set of problems. Specifically stated, whether or not atheism, anti-theism or theism posseses inherent, direct or indirect, ethical implications, along with the quality of those implications, is a direct reflection on the metaethical valuation to be associated with those positions.
12.15.2006 4:27pm
Elliot123 (mail):
It's important for a subset of the religious to tell each other they are superior to others. Who are they superior to? Why, those immoral athiests.

If morality is available to all folks, regardless of religious affiliation or belief in god, then they have little practical argument for others to accept their religion. What's the marginal value of adopting something if you already have the proposed benefits?

So, I suspect the real audience for people like the columnist are other believers. The purpose is to keep believers from dserting the belief. If people can be convnced that dropping religion will transform them into serial killing rapists, then they may keep the flock intact.

But, I do have to wonder about the people who think they would be murders without religion. What does that tell us about them and their real character?
12.15.2006 4:28pm
Colin (mail):
But, I do have to wonder about the people who think they would be murders without religion. What does that tell us about them and their real character?

Assuming (as I do) that those people are incorrect, it only tells us that they haven't invested in serious introspection.
12.15.2006 4:41pm
Michael B (mail):
Elliot123,

There's a superfluity of irony in your post. The pieties that have been forwarded in this thread have largely been the pieties of smarm, sarcasm and similar merely derisive forms, directed by those whom you seemingly reflect.

From a philosophical position I don't believe that either side is tenable, formally understood. But your notion of people confirming to themselves about their superiority is one that exemplifies a stark self-blinded quality.
12.15.2006 4:43pm
Michael B (mail):
"From a philosophical position I don't believe that either side is tenable, formally understood."

Correction: scratch "tenable" and insert "subject to positive proofs".
12.15.2006 4:55pm
marghlar:
Specifically stated, whether or not atheism, anti-theism or theism posseses inherent, direct or indirect, ethical implications, along with the quality of those implications, is a direct reflection on the metaethical valuation to be associated with those positions.

I don't really understand what you are trying to say. How can we even begin to say what the ethical implications of any of these theologic positions are without a theory of metaethics? You were arguing against the assertion that atheism isn't a metaethical position. And it's not. It has one metaethical implication, but that's a small component of possible metaethical questions, and not a favored one among either theologians or ethicists.

Do you agree or disagree that atheism isn't in and of itself a metaethical position? If you disagree, can you please tell me what metaethical position (other than the rejection of divine command theory) you feel is necessarily entailed by atheism?
12.15.2006 4:57pm
Michael B (mail):
marghlar,

You misunderstand. I am suggesting there are a set of philosophical problems that cannot be simply foreclosed. Too, I don't see where you've shown them to be foreclosed. Finally, in suggesting there are in fact a set of philosophical problems, I'm not presuming to say I have the answers.
12.15.2006 5:11pm
marghlar:
Michael, I'm not saying that atheism forecloses any metaethical problems other than the one I've listed; I'm saying that it is orthogonal to them and irrelevant to them. This is in direct reply to your assertion that somebody else was wrong to say that atheism is not a metaethical position. It's not, for the most part, as I have shown above.

I don't know what set of philosophical "problems" you are referring to. Why don't you help me out by specifying more clearly what you feel them to be. Are you asserting that these problems flow from accepting atheism as a premise? If so, please explain how and why. Then we might be able to figure out what we are actually disagreeing about.
12.15.2006 5:18pm
marghlar:
It would also help if you could answer my question from above:

Do you agree or disagree that atheism isn't in and of itself a metaethical position? If you disagree, can you please tell me what metaethical position (other than the rejection of divine command theory) you feel is necessarily entailed by atheism?
12.15.2006 5:19pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Has any living believer learned of religion from any source besides another human being?

What if an athiest made up a moral code and convinced other folks it was revelation? How many generations could it last? And for all those generations, believers could say they need not prove the revelation since that is the point of revelation. And, debit cards are accepted...
12.15.2006 5:43pm
Michael B (mail):
marghlar,

It would certainly help if you could first represent my own positions correctly, without reading too much into them. I'm stating a set of philosophical problems exist, problems that are more involved than your statements/assertions reflect. E.g., where is your proof, your reasoning, your line of thinking in support of your statement about the orthogonal quality and irrelevance? If I've missed it I apologize, but I simply don't see it in anything you've commented upon.
12.15.2006 5:45pm
marghlar:
I'm stating a set of philosophical problems exist, problems that are more involved than your statements/assertions reflect.

Which problems please? It's hard to talk about this unless you are willing to be more clear.

It would certainly help if you could first represent my own positions correctly, without reading too much into them.

I'm trying, but you've been very vague. When I've asked for a little clarification, you keep ducking the questions. So I'm left in a pickle.

My argument about why metaethics and theology are different enterprises is simple: metaethics is a theory of language, which asks "When one says that 'A ought to do X", one means [insert theory here]." This is orthogonal to theology, because theories of meaning and theories of ontology (which theology is ultimately a subset of) are different things. The only time they intersect is when a theory of meaning depends on an ontological premise.

So, if you're theory of ethical meaning is that "A is good" if and only if "God prefers A," then that theory doesn't square well with a belief that God does not exist, in the same way that a theory that "A is good" if and only if "Randy prefers A" is not very useful if we agree that there is no such person as Randy. Now, it is still possible to maintain that ethical statements as a class refer to something that does not exist, but it's certainly not a great theory of metaethics. So atheists as a group are unlikely to subscribe to Divine Command Theory.

But atheism is agnostic with respect to virtually every other major metaethical question. It doesn't resolve whether ethical statements have truth values or not. It doesn't say what the corresponent reality is for those truth values, if ethical statements do have truth values. It doesn't say what we are expressing when we make ethical statements if we believe that ethical statements actually don't have truth values. In short, atheism entails nothing at all about metaethics, other than a tendency to find Divine Command Theory relatively useless. But since DCT is only one subbranch of one category of metaethical beliefs (objectivism), that still leaves almost every major meta-ethical question unresolved.

Now feel free to follow up with me about this, but first, I'm going to demand that you explain yourself a little bit better. You keep referring to vague "philosophical problems" in metaethics (I presume, but maybe not?) that are supposed to flow from atheism. Please spell out what you mean. Which problems? And how do they flow from atheism?
12.15.2006 6:02pm
marghlar:
Also, Michael, if you find this format a frustrating way to talk about this, feel free to email me at marghlar at gmail.com
12.15.2006 6:06pm
Michael B (mail):
Good grief, you're left in a pickle of your own making. Too, you are forwarding a set of assertions and definitions, not philosophical arguments. Again, I asked:

Where is your proof, your reasoning, your line of thinking in support of your statement(s) about the orthogonal quality and irrelevance?

But I will forward some clarifications in a few minutes or more. For example I'm not using the term 'metaethics' in the seemingly narrow sense you're using it, I'm using it in a general sense, of that which undergirds and imports content into the moral/ethical arena. As to the most basic problem, it's self defined: the most basic problem is does the atheistic, anti-theistic or theistic decision act in something other than a neutral way vis-a-vis the ethical?
12.15.2006 6:16pm
marghlar:
Where is your proof, your reasoning, your line of thinking in support of your statement(s) about the orthogonal quality and irrelevance?

I think I've explained it to you twice; why don't you start spending your time showing me where I've fallen short, rather than just asserting that I haven't made an argument.
12.15.2006 6:25pm
marghlar:
For example I'm not using the term 'metaethics' in the seemingly narrow sense you're using it, I'm using it in a general sense, of that which undergirds and imports content into the moral/ethical arena. As to the most basic problem, it's self defined: the most basic problem is does the atheistic, anti-theistic or theistic decision act in something other than a neutral way vis-a-vis the ethical?

As to the first sentence, I think my usage basically corresponds with that used by academic philosophers. Metaethics is the inquiry of what we are studying when we study ethics, NOT what we should or should not be doing. If you can generate an ought statement via an argument, it isn't a metaethical argument, it's a plain old ethical argument. I'm not familiar with your usage -- could you point me to some sources using it that way?

As to the second sentence: I have never claimed that theistic positions have NO metaethical implications; I've just said that their implications are relatively minor.
12.15.2006 6:34pm
Michael B (mail):
Yes, you've asserted they are relatively minor. It's as if you're arguing from an ethical and metaethical position, and are then backing into your philosophical positions, which are nothing more than definitions, assertions, assumptions at that more foundational level. I don't know, but that's how it appears.

I have the impression you're educated in a specialized manner, perhaps even narrowly so if that doesn't sound too presumptuous or personal (it's not intended in that vein), for I sense you're unable or unwilling to accept my position as such, as if there is some pigeonhole you desperately need to put me, or rather my statements, in. But we are getting nowhere, I find nothing you've said compelling in terms of more substantial philosophical content, though you're certainly taken with terms, definitions and assertions. For example, an excerpt of yours:

"My argument about why metaethics and theology are different enterprises is simple: metaethics is a theory of language, which asks "When one says that 'A ought to do X", one means [insert theory here]." This is orthogonal to theology, because theories of meaning and theories of ontology (which theology is ultimately a subset of) are different things. The only time they intersect is when a theory of meaning depends on an ontological premise."

1) I didn't say or imply that "metaethics" and theology are equivalent.

2) As already noted, I don't accept the premise that metaethics is simply, or solely, a "theory of language". This sounds textbookish, but I'm not sure where your comprehension is on this. (Too, it minimally reflects an assertion, one that either needs context and clarification or needs to be more formally argued.)

3) You then venture an even more over-arching assertion about meaning and ontology, asserting that the "only" time they intersect is when a theory of meaning depends upon an ontological premise. Well, for one, that covers a whole lot of ground.

4) In general, the above excerpt is replete with assumptions and assertions that are not at all argued, they're simply assumed and asserted. You seem to think I'm suppose to simply adapt to such, if so that's philosophically naive and credulous in the extreme.

On one level such is not surprising as it reflects the enormous set of lacuna and chasms that popularizers such as Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and some others "argue" from when in their anti-theistic ideological mode. But as such, they are not acting as genuine philosophical players, they are popularizers, which is not to say all their arguments are equally vacuous and overly leveraged, nor is it to say they don't forward valid statements and arguments in their other disciplines per se. But in philosophical terms they often don't even quality as emperors with no clothes, they're more properly caricaturized as clowns in the middle of the street. Likewise, I see no serious philosophical arguments you've forwarded.

Likewise again, I don't see where Ilya has successfully argued his position vis-a-vis a "fallacy," nor anyone else in the thread.

Have a good evening.
12.15.2006 7:03pm
marghlar:
Honestly, Michael B., you haven't put forward even a single argument on this thread. Why keep castigating me for not having said enough, rather than address on substance? Why not spell out what you think the "problems" are? Why not give a competing definition of metaethics and explain why you think it should be used as opposed to mine?

I have the impression you're educated in a specialized manner, perhaps even narrowly so if that doesn't sound too presumptuous or personal (it's not intended in that vein), for I sense you're unable or unwilling to accept my position as such, as if there is some pigeonhole you desperately need to put me, or rather my statements, in.

Well, actually, I'm more a generalist, but let's leave that to one side. You have never specified what your actual point of view is on this. How am I supposed to even begin to talk with you when you won't give me clarification when I repeatedly ask for it? Are you just trolling here, or are you trying to engage in a dialogue. I'm not trying to mischaracterize your position; I don't even know what your position is, frankly.

I don't have time to explain every single philosophical premise on which my arguments rest. I'm happy to do so, if you'll let me know which ones you dispute.

2) As already noted, I don't accept the premise that metaethics is simply, or solely, a "theory of language". This sounds textbookish, but I'm not sure where your comprehension is on this

So what is it? Define metaethics for me, please.

It's as if you're arguing from an ethical and metaethical position, and are then backing into your philosophical positions, which are nothing more than definitions, assertions, assumptions at that more foundational level.

Well, we are arguing over the relationship between two defined terms, atheism and metaethics. How can an argument not be heavily dependent on definitions? You've neither offered competing definitions, nor have you attacked my argument on its own terms. I'm sorry if I can't deploy all of the rigor of modern philosophy in a comment on a blog post. I'm trying to have a dialogue with you, but you've dodged every direct question I've asked.
12.15.2006 7:15pm
Dave Turner (mail):
Michael B:

It is quite clear that marghlar is making a good faith effort to provide the kind of substance in which you are interested. You are repeatedly, and ungenerously, casting the components of his argument as assertions and subsequently dismissing them. It is clear that what you have characterized as marghlar's assertions are components of his larger argument. It should be obvious that marghlar has no intention of writing and presenting a doctoral dissertation for your edification in a single post. This is an Internet thread and, to some extent, the medium is the message.

An Internet thread is, ideally if nothing else, a dialogue. There is no obligation in a dialogue for one participant to exhaustively detail their side of the dialogue in one fell swoop. Marghlar clearly has a well-reasoned position which would likely emerge in the fullness of discussion. He has provided plenty of material with which you might substantively engage. Marghlar has only resorted to characterizing your position by virtue of the fact that you have studiously, and obstinately, refused to responsibly shoulder your end of the dialogue.
12.15.2006 8:07pm
Michael B (mail):
You're not trying very hard at all that I can see and in terms of "rigor," you haven't deployed any, much less "all," that might be attainable. As with Plato's Euthyphro, which at best has been poorly applied in this thread, you don't comprehend your lack of philosophical knowledge in the first place. I.e. you're doubly unaware.

Euthyphro's pieties were poorly and superficially conceived (especially so within the Greek pantheon including Jupiter, Saturn, et al.) - Socrates, in Plato's hand and with an abundance of ironies, was not arguing pieties as such are unwarranted, he was attempting to call attention to Euthyphro's superficial and superficially conflicting conceptions of what might constitute a more genuinely conceived piety or holiness. Too, the more interesting and probative dilemma Socrates posed was not the one suggested in this thread (which is superficially applied herein), but was as follows: "Is the holy, because it is holy, beloved by the gods, or is it holy because it is beloved by the gods?" (Plato, Euthyphro, 10a) I tend, with some caveats, to the latter position. Regardless, and if only via indirection, there is a strong hint of the problems already mentioned.

But no mind (literally and figuratively), as I've now referenced Plato's use of terms such as piety and holiness, there will be mimics and emulators of the troika of clowns noted above who will, and in full bore self-congratulatory mode, place me under the rubric of fundamentalist or some other label that permits a generalized dismissiveness. Such is the quality of anti-theistic pieties forwarded, with some ubiquity, among the piously politically correct.

Ironically and tellingly, very much in the mode of none other than Euthyphro.
12.15.2006 8:10pm
Michael B (mail):
Dave Turner, you very much misunderstand what is being said. But now I am out for the evening.
12.15.2006 8:13pm
Sean O'Hara (mail):
[quote]the Bible says "Thou shalt not kill," which perfectly clearly covers abortion;[/quote]

There's a bit in, I believe, Deuteronomy in which God lays down the law for what happens if a man causes a woman to miscarry -- if the woman survives, the malefactor has to pay a fine, and the husband has the option of beating him; if the woman dies, the killer is executed. Seems perfectly clear to me that killing a fetus is a lesser offense than murder.
12.15.2006 8:18pm
marghlar:
Mike, at this point I'm assuming that you are a troll who is just trying to get a rise out of people. If you won't make your positions clear, or answer direct questions, you aren't worth talking to. All you can do is disparage other people's arguments without actually engaging with them, or offering something of your own (aside from a survey-course description of the Euthyphro which is identical in substance to what I set out above; indeed, where in this thread has a different version been offered?).

You do seem to be good at slinging around ad hominems, telling me how little I understand phlosophy. Well, either do me the honor of educating me (since you imply, but never display, a superior perspective) or else stop wasting my time. Enjoy your evening.
12.15.2006 8:25pm
Jim Hu:
Shorter version of this thread:

Somin: Jacoby's characterization about atheists is fallacious because it is factually erroneous about the beliefs of actual atheists.

Various believers:No, it's not, atheists choose their moral systems without reference to the possibility of objective right and wrong.

Actual atheists: Huh? No we don't.

Believers: Yes you do! We know what you believe better than you do.

I'm not particularly interested in the atheist responses based on the failings, real or imagined, of religion. And although I'm an atheist, I find Dawkins and Harris on religion tiresome and annoying. I don't have a problem with understanding that others base their morality on belief. I don't even have a problem with them believing that their basis is better than mine, as long as they don't insist that I agree. What bewilders me is the certainty with which many believers make claims about what I must believe as a consequence of being an atheist.

This is not to claim that what I believe should be immune from criticism, philosophical or otherwise. But when I say that I believe in a common, transcendant truth-value to many (but not all) ethical propositions AND many (but not all) of the truth values I assign to ethical propositions agree with those arrived at through faith AND I didn't use faith myself...why is that so hard to accept? Sure, the choices are at some basic level irrational. But that doesn't mean they are arbitrary or random, any more than my belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is arbitrary, random, or based on revelation.

When Marghlar and I say that atheism is orthogonal to whether or not they believe morality can be reduced to opinion, the proof people are demanding is trivial. The null hypothesis, that all atheists are that kind of moral relativists can be falsified by a single instance of an atheist who does not hold such beliefs, i.e. me. I'm the proof, subject to sophomoric caveats that I can't even prove my existence to you, the reader. In the real world (yes I believe in a real world even though I can't prove that it exists), I even doubt that most atheists believe that morality is just opinion.
12.15.2006 8:42pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Could someone please supply an example of a transcendent truth? Any ol' objective moral truth will do. Something true across all cultures, over all time (presumably over all species, since we now know that we were once mere primates and are now the extra-special hominids god loves so much).
The New York Yankees are Evil.
12.16.2006 1:10am
Colin (mail):
The New York Yankees are Evil.

And the Boston Red Sox are holy. Upon these two commandments hang all the laws and the prophets.
12.16.2006 3:28am
randroid:
Re: SANE's contention that all non-religious moralities are relativistic.

Ayn Rand held that morality arises from three main facts:

1. Reality has a specific identity which is immune to change by acts of consciousness
2. Life requires a certain course of action, the principles of which are dictated by the nature man and reality.
3. Men do not act automatically to choose the life-sustaining course, so must learn it and choose it by their free will.

Whether one agrees with this view or not, it is not relativistic. If you want to live, you must live by the absolute rules imposed by reality. Period. (The only other choice, to die, requires no complicated rules: there are a million obvious ways to accomplish that goal, including doing nothing.)
12.16.2006 9:15am
Porkchop (mail):

Somin: Jacoby's characterization about atheists is fallacious because it is factually erroneous about the beliefs of actual atheists.

Various believers: No, it's not, atheists choose their moral systems without reference to the possibility of objective right and wrong.

Actual atheists: Huh? No we don't.

Believers: Yes you do! We know what you believe better than you do.


This is, in fact, almost a verbatim quotation from numerous conversations between me and my born-again brother-in-law. He projects, based on his sincere belief that if a deity didn't promise him extreme, severe, and eternal punishment, he would be likely to commit ever so many heinous crimes and sins. He knows that I am hideously immoral, if not an actual or potential serial killer or genocidal monster, and it frustrates him that he can't find the evidence to prove it. I have given up discussing the matter, because there is no conclusion that would satisfy him other than my agreeing to accept his religious principles. It's not a debate or a discussion; it is simply nonstop religious propaganda.

I suspect that I am not alone in wishing to be left alone. It is of no consequence to me that he does not agree with me; if he is able to live a happy and productive life under his system of belief, then I have no need or desire to argue with him. He fails to understand that there is no need to proselytize nonbelief, so he interprets my unbelief as a challenge to his belief. The conflict between atheism and religion arises when proponents of religion seek to impose their religious values on nonbelievers. We may argue about where the line is (e.g., Christmas displays, the pledge of allegiance, etc.). Indeed, the contested area is where religious believers think that, by resisting religious impositions, atheists are trying to impose atheistic values on the religious. It is, I suppose, all a matter of perspective and what one has seen and experienced in the past. If one is used to public prayers at football games and high school graduations, then an atheist's challenge to the practices would be a rude shock regardless of the constitutional questions. From an atheist's perspective, one wonders why any omnipotent deity would care in the least about an insignificant high school football game, much less why he/she/it would take sides. (On a grander scale, see Mark Twain's The War Prayer.)

For the most part, I am content to live my life in a way that does not include Sunday mornings listening to hellfire and damnation imaginings. In the meantime, I attempt to act in a way that does my neighbors no harm and participate productively in society. I simply fail to understand why erligious people can't accept that.
12.16.2006 10:43am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
You mean like Catholic Poland and France? Like the fiercely Christian United States and Canada? Like Britain?

Catholic France, Christian Britain and Canada? I thought you just condemned them for rejecting God. France was the most secular nation of all Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century.

And the fascism of Spain had little to do with Italy or Germany? And you accuse me of not knowing history? You might want to check on Nazi involvement in the Spanish Civil War before you make such stunningly ignorant statements.

My point was that fascism and communism succeeded in countries where religion and the church still held considerable power over both the people and the political system. To point out that it didn't take over in countries that were equally pious (not to mention that some of your examples are in apposite) does not negate my point. The Nazis, whether or not they were nominally "socialist", drew there support mainly from the much more politically, religiously, and Catholic Bavaria and other southern German states. Likewise, Italian and Spanish fascism, regardless of their roots, emerged in heavily, almost exclusively Catholic countries. And Russian communism emerged in the most religiously conservative and Orthodox country in Europe (and Stalin at one point was in training to be a priest).
12.16.2006 11:34am
Tracy Coyle (mail) (www):
Maybe Porkchop would agree with me:

Tracyism:
Rule 1: Always act in your own best interest
(consequences - first, you are responsibily for all outcomes resulting from your actions, ie, personal responsibility; second, having claimed the rule, it must be applicable to everyone else, they too should always act in their own best interest. Conflict between best interests is best resolved by a system of law that prevent your actions from infringing on my actions, ie freedom under a system of mutually agreed upon rules)
Rule 2: Allow no harm unless to do so violates rule 1
(consequenses - harm is not the random bullet flying through your living room window, it is actions that impair your best interest, therefore, a relationship is a fundemental violation of rule 2, but it might be in your best interest)
Rule 3: All other choices, actions, preferences and desires are acceptable as long as it doesn't violate rule 2.
(consequences - if someone in another stat wants to marry a same sex partner, it is of no matter to me as it does not violate my rule 2. I can eat pork if I want. I can work on Saturday. I can walk around without anything on my head, in public...)

These are the rules I abide by. I am agnostic. Am I a moral relativist? The people here are demonstrably smarter than I....opinions welcome.
12.16.2006 2:32pm
marghlar:
These are the rules I abide by. I am agnostic. Am I a moral relativist?

You haven't told us enough for anyone to know. Do you think that these are universal rules? In other words, would you agree with the statement that "It is wrong for any person at any time or in any place to violate the rules of Tracyism?" If so, then you are not a moral relativist.

If, however, you don't believe that it can be truthfully said that there is any ethical rule that applies universally regardless of circumstances or culture, then you are a moral relativist. You could be either a descriptive moral relativist (as a matter of practical reality, there is no such rule that everyone can agree on) or a meta-ethical moral relativist (it is not possible to create such rules because ethical "truth" is defined by reference to culturally shared values or understandings.

So, you'll need to tell us more about your system for us to give you an answer.
12.16.2006 6:33pm
SANE (mail):
I was off for awhile and I will admit to not having read through all the entries so forgive me for any redundancy or non-responsiveness, if your ethics permit it.

As to Jim Hu's restatement of my position, you are very close. I will say however that the use of "professional" language in a thread such as this does not seem to me to be overly helpful but that is only because I found that lexicon tiring and stifling many years ago.

Marghlar: Your summing up of what Jim said my position is, while crass, is fair enough at least as far as it could be articulated on a comment thread.

Which leaves at least for me, the challenge. How is an atheist a relativist? Which is part and parcel of the response to my challenge re libertarians. But if marghlar or Jim Hu are still keeping an eye here, I'll pursue this piecemeal.

First, it is noteworthy that of all the sentient organisms in our known existence, only man seeks to know the Beginning, the Beyond, and the How (ethics). A theory or notion of the Divine may affect all three or not. Aristotle accepted involvement at the Beginning, but not necessarily in the other two.

An atheist rejects the belief in a Divine First Cause. So far, we all agree he hasn't taken a position on ethics.

That means by definition that the world is wholly matter and leaves the atheist with the Infinite Regress to deal with.

Given a wholly material world, the only way to establish demonstrably a universal truth would be through empirical or mathematical proof.

Jim Hu suggests that he can refute the null hypothesis with but one atheist, like himself, espousing such a universal truth. But he concedes that it is irrational ("Sure, the choices are at some basic level irrational.") But having conceded that they are irrational, meaning in any real sense subjective, he then states, "that doesn't mean they are arbitrary or random, any more than my belief that the sun will rise tomorrow is arbitrary, random, or based on revelation."

But no one should say that relativity is necessarily arbitrary or random. I can believe many things that I can't know rationally that aren't silly (which is what arbitrary and random imply).

But Jim Hu, you're theory of ethics as an atheist claiming universality must either be demonstrable or irrational. And, if irrational, then relative because it is your belief.

If we look at randroids libertarian effort to establish a non-relativistic ethics, he writes:

Ayn Rand held that morality arises from three main facts:

1. Reality has a specific identity which is immune to change by acts of consciousness
2. Life requires a certain course of action, the principles of which are dictated by the nature man and reality.
3. Men do not act automatically to choose the life-sustaining course, so must learn it and choose it by their free will.


Now, I will not attest to his rendition of Rand's system, but it is certainly a rather simple matter to see that it does not meet the test. Let's just begin with no 1. Rand is certainly a sworn atheist. That being the case, from whence does she learn no 1? It has certainly not been proven in a laboratory. Are we to take this on faith? If she didn't determine this fact from some known empirical data then she can only believe it to be true. The same thing could be said of 2 and certainly 3.
12.16.2006 10:30pm
marghlar:
First, it is noteworthy that of all the sentient organisms in our known existence, only man seeks to know the Beginning, the Beyond, and the How (ethics).

This is a very peculiar definition of the project of ethics, to my mind. I would tend to say something more like: ethics is the study of the relative worth of actions. It attempts to understand what we mean when we make "ought" statements, which ought statements we should agree with, and how well our actions accord with the ought statements that we agree with.

An atheist rejects the belief in a Divine First Cause. So far, we all agree he hasn't taken a position on ethics.

That means by definition that the world is wholly matter and leaves the atheist with the Infinite Regress to deal with.


This is simply false. One need not believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and omnibenevolent being in order to think that there is more to the universe than what we can observe with human senses, or comprehend with human minds. You are confusing materialism and atheism. They are different things. One can be an atheist non-materialist (see Buddhism, Paremenidian monism) or even (although it is more rare) something approaching a materialist theist (God is a physical being who created everything we can observe and who has perfect control of everything we can observe through physical processes beyond our understanding or perception, and who has a perfect understanding of all physical laws and a view of what we call the universe that is outside of time).

You seem to misunderstand, at bottom, what relativism means to philosophers. A person is not a relativist if they believe that there are ethical rules that are universal -- that are true for all beings in all places at all times. Ayn Rand's ethics were viewed by her to be such rules. You might say that she could not properly derive those conclusions from her available premises and evidence, but that doesn't make her a relativist - it makes her potentially a bad ethicist, but a moral-realist ethicist nonetheless.

You have to realize that probably the MAJORITY of atheists believe that there are ethical propositions that are universally true. Just because you don't understand how they came to those conclusions, does not mean they don't have such beliefs.

Also, I'd invite you to read some literature on the Euthyphro problem if you think that the existence of a deity, in and of itself, resolves most major ethical problems. Suffice it to say that a large number of both theologians and ethicists would disagree that God makes ethics significantly easier.
12.16.2006 11:04pm
SANE (mail):
I read back through some of the posts, so let me just respond to marghlar's insistence that the Euthyphro dilemma remains problematic for revealed faith. I would say to you and Mr. Hu that given your learned approach, William of Ockham responded to this as well as it needs to be for this thread. And it fits quite well with what I have already set out as the defense of revealed truth.
12.16.2006 11:05pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Given a wholly material world, the only way to establish demonstrably a universal truth would be through empirical or mathematical proof.
Assuming arguendo that this is true, it has nothing to do with relativism. Seriously. I know I'm not the first person in this thread to tell you this, but if you think it does, you're confused as to what relativism is.

Relativism is not about whether we "establish demonstrably" the universal truth; it's enough to state, rationally or irrationally, that such universal truth exists. (Or, rather, relativism is the statement that no such universal truth exists.)
12.16.2006 11:24pm
SANE (mail):
Marghlar: you and I are speaking past one another because you insist on viewing these matters from a perspective of a meta-ethicist.

Leave aside the material theist, which I have not touched upon, put down your definitions and classroom outline to think about what I have said. If we still disagree, so be it.

Aside from the fact that Buddhisism is not theistic, meaning it does not relate to a Divine being (although certain latter variants became theistic), it was not atheistic. This is important. A Buddhist will not deny there is a Divine creator. He might not believe in one; it just is not of interest to him.

But even so, let's assume Ethical System X. In X, there is no Divine cause, but there is a universal truth y. The question remains, how do the adherents of ESX know this?

You say that does not touch upon the question of moral relativism. But you say that because that is what your meta-ethicist text says. But think about it for a minute or two.

The same is true of Rand. You just want to pigeonhole her because she says something is universal, ergo her view is not relative.

Now, I believe your failed discussion with Michael B was really about this point but he was not able to get at it. So here we are.

Moral relativists per your definition (and I concede it is the termonology of the classroom professionals of the past two decades) is what you say it is. But I contend, and so do plenty of others, that this is artificial.

And, it is artificial because when all is said and done, if it is not a revealed truth is must be Uncertain.
12.16.2006 11:27pm
SANE (mail):
And, if the consensus is as David M. Nieporent says, then the discussion is over. You demand a definition because that is what you've been told it is. This is evident in marghlar's response to my "How" comment, which I might add was set down to elicit just such a response. Tell me how your erudite rendition of the study of ethics says more than mine?

But the fact remains. If someone insists on a theory of the world that says there is no Divine First Cause which reveals truths to man, then all of your theories which you will place into various rubrics are left with one simple fact (whether their theories are non-materialist or absolutist): they are are predicated upon Uncertainty, whether they incorporate that fact or not.
12.16.2006 11:36pm
marghlar:
I would say to you and Mr. Hu that given your learned approach, William of Ockham responded to this as well as it needs to be for this thread.

And I would say that saying that goodness = whatever the whim of a powerful being is, makes a mockery of that concept, and makes it impossible for anyone to meaningfully praise a god's goodness, justice or mercy. It also effectively removes all but the instrumental reasons for following divine commands. You may think that's a satisfying answer to the dilemna, but a lot of theologians would prefer the other tack.
12.16.2006 11:51pm
marghlar:
Moral relativists per your definition (and I concede it is the termonology of the classroom professionals of the past two decades) is what you say it is. But I contend, and so do plenty of others, that this is artificial.

And, it is artificial because when all is said and done, if it is not a revealed truth is must be Uncertain.


Ah, but there is a difference between truth being uncertain, and it's being relative. It's the difference between saying that I'm not sure if it is raining outside, but I think it probably is, and saying that there is no such thing as a fact about whether it is raining outside.

Now, sure, you can say that this is just definitional, but then you ought to endeavor to use terminology that better fits your meaning. Your real argument is not about moral relativsim, but moral epistemology. You're worried that we can't "infallibly know" moral truth without divine revelation. Well, I would argue that there is no circumstance under which we can "infallibly know" anything other than logical tautologies, so your criticism of atheist ethics is empty. I think you are simply wrong to assert that your religious revelation can be considered the subject of certainty. There is a different between believing that something is definitely true, and being justified in that belief.

And instrumentally, you still haven't dealt with the Thugee example I offered above. Is it really better to have people adhere to whatever ethical views they feel have been revealed to them by a divinity, regardless of the content of those beliefs? I'd submit that it is not.
12.16.2006 11:58pm
SANE (mail):
To marghlar: when and where did I say that believing in a Divine Being made ethics easy or hard? What I said was that the well known response by W o O was dispositive for me and many others. There is no question that if the study of ethics has decided that these matters are subject to some kind of vote, in today's "moral philosophic" world, dominated by meta-ethics, that might not cut it.

And this gets to your "popular" definition of relativism. I am making an argument that the definition for a meta-ethical classroom is fine so long as everyone understands it. I understood it years ago.

But to respond to my argument which is essentially saying that the definition is a poor one to get at the meaning of the difference between a revealed Divine truth and some other 'system' by just returning to an argumentum ad verecundiam -- this is how the professors define it so there it is -- is not very productive or thoughtful. Further, and this point has been made by others, the definition itself prejudges the discussion of the Divine and that is very clear in your reliane on the Euthyphro problem. Thus my response with Ockham.

I will end on this note. I have been told at least three times that I confuse atheism with materialism and moral relativism with something.

But in the vernacular, an atheist who doesn't believe in a wholly empirical world is guessing. And that guessing is relative.
12.16.2006 11:58pm
marghlar:
But in the vernacular, an atheist who doesn't believe in a wholly empirical world is guessing. And that guessing is relative.

Not guessing. Reasoning. Which I'd say is better than just accepting the word of a priest, a book, or a mystic revelation.
12.17.2006 12:05am
SANE (mail):
Marghlar: Now you wish to say I am confused between MR and ME. I am one confused soul.

But I would ask, where does the notion of moral epistemology come from? When did it start and in what philosophical miliue? Do you know the answer? If you did, you'd understand that your effort to speak in categorical definitions illustrates your bias.

As to your point though, no, you are wrong. When someone makes a statement about whether or not it is raining, he can demonstrate that rain falls. Now he may be certain or uncertain about the conditional existence of a demonstrable fact, but that is a far cry from positing the existence of something about which you have no clue (empirically or mathematically).
12.17.2006 12:09am
SANE (mail):
Ok, now we're getting somewhere. Now the atheist is reasoning. But by reasoning, you don't mean Plato's Reason or Logos. That was rejected by Descartes and the Englightenment. So you mean what exactly? What does this atheistic non-materialistic absolutist ethicist reason with? Common sense? empirical observations? crystals? what?
12.17.2006 12:13am
SANE (mail):
And, just to keep things on an even keel, now you wish to object to Ockham's retort by resorting to "most theologians"? Do they take the same courses you've taken?
12.17.2006 12:15am
SANE (mail):
And you (maghlar) simply parrot the responses of all those who have already rejected the notion of the Divine: "And I would say that saying that goodness = whatever the whim of a powerful being is, makes a mockery of that concept". It most certainly does if by Divine Creator you mean "powerful being". Absolutely. And that is what Ockham was teaching. If the Divine First Cause is approached as just any other being, and studied like one, guess what: he wouldn't be the Divine First Cause. And, the effort to do so, provides the best glimpse into the bias of the man.
12.17.2006 12:20am
marghlar:
SANE, I'm sorry if I've offended you. You seem to be taking this very personally. I'm just trying to explain to you why I disagree with you, not get into a fight.

What does this atheistic non-materialistic absolutist ethicist reason with?

I don't disagree with you that the is-ought problem is challenging -- I just think it is a challenge that undercuts theistic ethics just as much as non-theistic ethics. One can either try to reason from the basic facts of human existence, as did Kant and his intellectual descendants, or one can try to reason from very simple axioms that seem to garner virtually universal agreement, as do utilitarians. Or one can procede pragmatically, and talk about what virtues are likely to produce happy and productive citizens and societies, as did the ancients. You take the existence of a god on faith; it's not asking that much to say that others can take the existence of an ought on faith.
12.17.2006 12:28am
SANE (mail):
Before retiring for the night, I see I didn't respond to marghlar's Thugee. Let's put it this way. When you and I can get through how it is that your atheist is "reasoning", then we can come back to how the man of faith may know with certainty the truth of his faith.
12.17.2006 12:29am
marghlar:
And, just to keep things on an even keel, now you wish to object to Ockham's retort by resorting to "most theologians"? Do they take the same courses you've taken?

Cute, and an effort to derail the conversation. I said above why I object to Ockham. And actually, I've never taken a course in moral philosophy. I just enjoy reading and thinking about it.
12.17.2006 12:30am
marghlar:
It most certainly does if by Divine Creator you mean "powerful being". Absolutely. And that is what Ockham was teaching. If the Divine First Cause is approached as just any other being, and studied like one, guess what: he wouldn't be the Divine First Cause. And, the effort to do so, provides the best glimpse into the bias of the man.

How is an omnipotent being, which gets to invent all the rules of good conduct unconstrained by any external limits, anything other than the "powerful being" I described? In Ockham's view, if God decided tomorrow that he liked watching people rape each other, that would become ethically commanded. Rape would now be good.

And you accuse me of being arbitrary.
12.17.2006 12:33am
marghlar:
Goodnight, SANE. Feel free to email me (I left my address upthread) if you'd like to continue this conversation somewhere more accessible than a comments thread.
12.17.2006 12:35am
SANE (mail):

SANE, I'm sorry if I've offended you. You seem to be taking this very personally. I'm just trying to explain to you why I disagree with you, not get into a fight.

What does this atheistic non-materialistic absolutist ethicist reason with?

I don't disagree with you that the is-ought problem is challenging -- I just think it is a challenge that undercuts theistic ethics just as much as non-theistic ethics. One can either try to reason from the basic facts of human existence, as did Kant and his intellectual descendants, or one can try to reason from very simple axioms that seem to garner virtually universal agreement, as do utilitarians. Or one can procede pragmatically, and talk about what virtues are likely to produce happy and productive citizens and societies, as did the ancients. You take the existence of a god on faith; it's not asking that much to say that others can take the existence of an ought on faith.
My dear friend (as friendships go on these things):

I am too old to be hurt by words posted on the internet. Much less on a tired comment thread on an old entry. But you are a good man(?) for extending the apology. None needed but accepted in the spirit given.

I am having this conversation with you because you like me are trying to get at something. Maybe you have all the answers. Maybe I can learn something.

But the "is-ought" problem (and I just don't like the professional short cuts which assume far too much because it biases the discussion) and the E Dilemma are not the same thing. By treating them identically, you have not taken the theistic position seriously. You've reduced it to something it is not.

But let's take the examples you provided:

Kant:"the basic facts of human existence." What are these basic facts? Are they more than quantities? And if so, from whence do they come?

Utilitarians: "very simple axioms that seem to garner virtually universal agreement". Aristotle said some things about this kind of political order which are demonstrably true. And I don't need to tell you that you open a can of worms with this kind of fallacy.

Ancients: "pragmatically." But which ancients are you referring to? There are only really three worth discussing. S-P-A. If you've read Voegelin's work, that would suggest something other than "pragmatics" at work with the ancients. But even so, you will recall the end of Socrates? And, it is not so much his end, but his reaction to the oppotunity not to suffer that end.
12.17.2006 12:44am
marghlar:
But the "is-ought" problem (and I just don't like the professional short cuts which assume far too much because it biases the discussion) and the E Dilemma are not the same thing.

Never said they were.
12.17.2006 12:46am
marghlar:
SANE, you can play the logical regress game all you like, but you know that even mathematics needs axioms. You keep referring to the need to calculate things; well, calculation is only possible because we developed a system built on formal axioms. If you don't add structure to thought, you have nothing but a wash of garbled data. Why should ethics be any different?

Anyway, I don't have time to walk through your objections tonight. I'll try and start with Kant deontic ethics tommorrow after I've taken an exam. Until then, have a good evening.
12.17.2006 12:51am
Porkchop (mail):
Tracy, I think we are basically in agreement -- it sounds like you espouse something in the nature of atheistic libertarian self-interest modulated by a reasonable (to be defined later) dispute resolution process as an ethical model.

Gee, that was easy. :-)
12.17.2006 1:38am
Michael B (mail):
"Not guessing. Reasoning. Which I'd say is better than just accepting the word of a priest, a book, or a mystic revelation." marghlar

Let's be clear, such an expression is nothing more than a piety - perhaps with being an attempt at a power grab, as if to say you apply reason more consistently than others. Well, perhaps and perhaps not, but each specific case needs to be critiqued, with the aid of reason, on its own merits. Too, no one seriously objects to reason per se, in the abstract; what's important is how it is qualified/defined and how it is put into practice. And neither side in this debate has a monopoly on reason, inherently or otherwise.

Finally, reason is far too often given token respect, then the rationalizations, sophistries, casuistries, elisions, occlusions, denials, etc., etc. are forwarded - and are forwarded under the banner of "reason" or some semblance thereof.

Finally again, reason itself is not a simple, deductive process of mere ratiocination, thankfully, reason is an eminently and imminently human enterprise: subject, object, and the interplay of perceptions and apperceptions, the interplay of the being which has been gifted to us. Thus wonder - beauty, comedy, tragedy, the panoply of aesthetics, reason, etc., etc. - is the beginning of the love of wisdom, Thauma arche tes sophias. Also, see Charles S. Peirce on logica docens and logica utens.

And finally, ...
12.17.2006 2:01am
Michael B (mail):
And btw, those theists who "just [accept] the word of a priest, a book, or a mystic revelation" are perhaps fewer, percentage wise, than those atheists and anti-theists who just accept the word of the latest popularizing academic, a book or some presumptive gnostic knower cum con man.

As already noted, directly upthread, one need only look at the book sales of such gnostic knowers and philosophical Elmer Gantrys as Harris, Dennett and Dawkins, whose readership very often fails to see the positively comical quality of their ideological initiatives, posing as profundities and philosophically astute commentaries.

QED
12.17.2006 2:14am
ArtD0dger (mail):
It's amusing how closely the theist's charge of moral relativism has come to resemble the atheist's original characterization of the former:

You guys are just making sh*t up.
12.17.2006 3:05am
Michael B (mail):
"... I'm assuming that you are a troll ... All you can do is disparage other people's arguments without actually engaging with them, or offering something of your own (aside from a survey-course description of the Euthyphro which is identical in substance to what I set out above; indeed, where in this thread has a different version been offered?).

"You do seem to be good at slinging around ad hominems, telling me how little I understand phlosophy. Well, either do me the honor of educating me (since you imply, but never display, a superior perspective) or else stop wasting my time." marghlar

Given the content reflected in my posts herein, and I'm happy to let others judge for themselves, your assumption is revealing of some very basic misapprehensions. And how you spend your time is up to you. Too, if you're going to claim an ad hominem attack then provide relevant excerpt(s), support your accusation or consider trimming your sails. (You dealt with my comments in a highly reductionist, simplifying manner, my trenchant comments were directed in turn at such commentary, not you personally.)

Now, addressing more substantive issues. The comments of mine that I'll allude to or further substantiate in what follows are directly upthread: 1) here, 2) here, 3) here, 4) here, 5) here, 6) here, 7) here, most notably #1, #6 and #7. (And again, please point out the ad hominem attack in any of those posts.)

Firstly, take note of my rather modest position, as reflected in #1, the only one I'll excerpt from at length, emphases added:

"What Ilya forwarded is the claim that there is a fallacy involved, not a mere disagreement of informed opinion. Assumming the excerpt is a reliable indicator, Jacoby is not forwarding a philosophical argument formally understood. Jacoby's piece is in the nature of Dostoevsky's "if there is no God, anything is permissible," it's forwarded as opinion/persuasion, not in formal terms. By contrast Ilya is suggesting, with the idea of "fallacy," that a formal refutation can be successfully argued.

"It would be similar to an atheist stating (without presuming to formally prove) that "god does not exist," and then a theist states, "no, there's a fallacy there" (or vice versa). I believe Dostoevsky is right, but I doubt either arguments are subject to philosophical proofs, pro or con.

"Ilya set the bar high, in forwarding the idea of a fallacy, and neither he nor anyone in this thread has met that challenge."

Summarized, my position is simply that I hold an informed opinion in line with Doetoevsky's well known aphorism and also in line with Jacoby's opinion/persuasion piece. By contrast, Ilya's originating post explicitly forwards the idea that a fallacy is being committed. He doesn't simply have an opinion, a belief, he explicitly suggests a fallacy can be shown. (And to be clear, I'm not, - pace Jim Hu's most recent comment, among others - concerned with individual theists, atheists and anti-theists, I'm concerned with a societal and civilizational view. Individual theists, atheists and anti-theists per se are trivial, are anecdotal, are uninteresting aspects of this discussion from any point of view that I find very interesting.)

It is precisely because my position is so modest that I have not forwarded my own philosophical proofs. When I explicitly and unambiguously state that "I believe Dostoevsky is right, but I doubt either arguments [atheism/theism and ethical/moral implications] are subject to philosophical proofs, pro or con," what arguments are you looking for me to forward given such an explicit, unambiguous statement that disavows arguments can be made in the first place? And despite this early statement (in my very first substantive comment in this thread) you nonetheless repeat the claim that "You have never specified what your actual point of view is on this."

In a similar vein I explicitly noted, as pertains to the concept of metaethics, that "I'm not using the term 'metaethics' in the seemingly narrow sense you're using it, I'm using it in a general sense, of that which undergirds and imports content into the moral/ethical arena." Then, after I make that explicit statement, you aver that I need to state how I'm using the term. (To understand why I'm using it in that sense one need only understand how meta is used as a prefix to form various words, as with metaphysics - though I do understand your use of the term and agree to its validity, in the sense of being in addition to the manner I've used the term - i.e. more encompassing, not mutually exclusive.)

By contrast, Ilya, in the originating post, specifically indicates a "fallacy" has been committed, therein denoting a logical and/or philosophical fallacy. Likewise, when you state, variously and repeatedly, that there are no moral/ethical implications stemming from the decision involved vis-a-vis theism, atheism and anti-theism (allowing for one exception) you are making a positive declaration - e.g., initially you stated "No, it's not a problem; it's resolved as a definitional matter," along with embellishments. Since that time I have pointed out you have not supported that declaration in terms that I find convincing, i.e. in philosophical terms.

So in summary, my position, stated virtually in my first post herein, is very modest: 1) mine is an opinion in the mode of Dostoevsky's aphorism and 2) I (explicitly) state I doubt that either the pro or con position can be defended in terms of philosophical proofs. By contrast and similar to the formal "fallacy" indicated in the originating post, and also without subsequent qualification, you positively state there are no moral/ethical implications as a result of the decision vis-a-vis theism, atheism and anti-theism.

Since I (explicitly) disavow that any proofs can be forwarded, either pro or con, there is no burden of a philosophical proof on my part. Yet you keep asking 1) for my position and 2) that I support it with proofs. By contrast, your position, as stated to this point, is not at all modest but instead (and again, similar to the "fallacy" position in the originating post) is a notably positive statement/assertion. That's why it's reasonable for me to ask for more rigor on your part.

Many other things could be addressed, for example the subject is positively rife with problems, in part variously reflecting the ineffable, paradoxical and likely even aporetic qualities evidenced not only vis-a-vis the human mind/spirit, in turn variously conceived, but ontological categories in general. (Which is a primary reason why Socrates, Plato, Kierkegaard and others approach their topics via irony, indirection, dialogs, etc. rather than directly and in a more presumptively authoritative and professorial manner.) But for you, seemingly, that is virtually dispensed with under the heading of "definitional matters" and references to the "metaethical" as little more than "the meaning of the language of ethics," allowing only something about the "divine command theory." Such an approach to the issues involved is academic/professorial in the most pejorative sense of the term - provincial, effete, narrow, reductionist, tendentious - and fails to deal with the set of problems I've alluded to, problems, imo, of enormous consequence.

In some large part we are likely talking past one another. Much of that is caused by the enormities that your academic/professorial and more narrowly conceived categories are serving to deny much, if any, import to (assumming I understand your meaning).

Btw, you also misapprehend the difference which has been indicated in this thread vis-a-vis Plato's Euthyphro. I forwarded something that was notably and qualitatively different from what commenter Evelyn Blaine, then you, emphasized. What Socrates, in Plato's hand, was revealing, I already noted in #7.
12.17.2006 3:12am
SANE (mail):
Michael B: I would have toned down the rhetoric, but when read with some care and "toning down", a quite substantive post. Now the problem is that when arguments have been made as you have, that express the notion that a man experiences the Whole in a participatory relationship with the Divine ground of Being vis a vis the quarternarian Terms of Existence, which have been noted by others as Self (or Soul), Society, Divine or Transcendence, and World, those who have been schooled to reduce all of this to the Part, that being the World (or matter), they shrug it off as "irrational".

Their argument is in a word, "how can you convince me via the discourse of modern language that your system is better than any other?" And indeed, in metaethics, they so reduce the Terms of Existence to World that the Divine must defend himself in this arena as a powerful king of flesh and blood might. (It would have been before Descartes, that this notion would have been laughed out of the academy. Now the academy laughs out those earlier laughers. But we can surely ignore the laughers on both sides.)

Two problems remain for these folks. One, they demand a rationalization or ratiocination, a perfect choice which you made in your post, on the part of the faithful but when they concede that at rock bottom their "rational" systems are predicated upon irrational leaps of faith, they see no problem. Why? Because of the deeper philosophical leap they made with Descartes some 300+ years ago.

To reduce the Whole of existence to the Part, to indistinguishable matter, is to gain a "universality" or absolutism by reducing man and his participatory existence to nothingness.

Further, they are not even aware of their assumptions. They know not from when they came, as it were. For them, Descartes magic wand which turned the mathematical symbol that symbolized nothing in the real world so that it could symbolize everything, reduced human speech to mere ratiocination of quantities and placement in space. Time or "progress" becomes of course the new Transcendent perch in lieu of the Divine ground.

But of course, this is but the one side of the obversion or reciprocal of what is termed the Science/Democracy reciprocal (per R.J. Loewenberg). Once Science (in a world of Telos) was reduced to the certainty gained by reducing all of the Whole to a symbol that represents nothing because it is infinitely malleable matter, what Descartes called "metaphysical matter" (yes, there is that wonderful "meta" of theirs), the mathesis universalis gained Certainty. When we say that Science is Certain we mean it not in its "theories" which are always tentative subject to revision per "better" theories (meaning simpler ways to account for the data) or better data collection (and of course today we recognize that man's observation of data appears to affect the thing being measured), we mean in the fact that once you've reduced the Whole of human existence to symbol as described, you've gained the Certainty necessary for "modern science to work". All of the experienced world is identical, "ordered" now only in quantifications and arrangements. And indeed if modern science were not reduced to mathesis universalis it could not make the claims it asserts it makes (i.e., representing the Whole of Existence in symbolic formulae [even if, it adds by way of qualifier, it has not yet discovered all of it and even if it will never do so]).

If it didn't say that, Rand could not get away with her first of three premises quoted above to "prove" libertarians are absolutists.

Of course, the reverse of modern science (using the universal mathematics to claim certainty through its reduction of human existence to the Part), is the reciprocal: anything not subject to symbol, that it not reducible to infinitely malleable quantities, or matter, must be uncertain. Ergo, once was understood as the Truth of Existence to man living in the participatory experience of the Whole, is now scoffed at as laughably uncertain. "You can't prove it!"

When confronted with the now science demanded uncertainty of human existence, and of course epistemology rising out of the "birth" of the Mind-Body Problem, which per Descartes was no problem at all but rather the "problem" that solved the issue for him how to reduce the Whole to the Part, leads people to respond like marghlar, "I don't believe you can prove anything but logical tautologies." That statement can only be meaningful in a world of Descartes' making.

So confronted with this Uncertainty, how best to determine "ethics" or what used to be a sub-part of Political Order -- (the latter being an ontological endeavor)? It boils down to two:

One, Totalitarianism in its active phase or Tyranny simply. Some man decides for all how to live.

Two, Totalitarianism in its resting phase. Democracy. Democracy solves the problem by recognizing no Truths and reducing Telos to method or the vote. Everyone goes home happy.

Well, "happy" of course, except the minority at any given moment. So how do these moderns resolve this problem? It would not be "ethical" to inflict pain and suffering on the minority just because they are a minority when we know that the "truth" of democracy is no truth but method. So we wrap the minorities in "Rights". Thus the new Rights-based notions that flow from Hobbes, Locke and the rest.

But I've said more than necessary for you already and too much for the others.
12.17.2006 7:41am
SANE (mail):
By the by, I would propose to all that we have now demonstrated that what the professor wrote in his blog entry and later as a response to my first comment are indefensible, to wit:


Atheism is simply the belief that there is no God. That is quite compatible with the possible existence of "transcendent truths" or of other facts that aren't reducible to mathematical symbols or reducible to countable matter.

As to the demand that I provide an logically foolproof atheist theory of morality, that is obviously not a demand that can be met in a blog post, if at all. Moreover, theists have been no more successful in meeting this challenge than atheists have been. The post shows that atheism doesn't necessarily imply moral relativism. Fully outlining and defending a specific moral theory is a separate matter.


Atheism understood demands the Science-Democracy Reciprocal, at least in modern times. We could go back to pre-modern notions and have that discussion, but that is not what the professor was arguing (or marghlar or Jim Hu). Denial of the Divine ground of Being has consequences for all "moral" systems because it is an ontological proposition and these matters are not distinct.

Second, as Michael B. also argues, he came with a charge of fallacy. That is a serious charge for a thinking man to make or to receive. But he refuses to discuss even in outline form even one such system so as to frame a discussion. Jim Hu tried to make the point in a different way using one he constructs but conceded to the irrational axiomatic basis of such systems and hence their "subjectivity" or uncertainty. Marghlar wanted to suggest then that that is a confustion of MR and the epistemological question. But that response as I point out above is itself a failure to account for modern assumptions about the world that bias everything else that follows. Which was precisely the point Michael B was making.

We saw why the professor refused to take the bait -- no one said he wasn't a clever sort. When randroid tried to establish libertarianism's Absolutist pedigree, it was obvious to any honest observer that the very first (and indeed all) of the premised "facts" were but undemonstrable guesses.

So at the end of the third day, the Professor stands rather exposed to the elements I would say and has "moved on" to the next "blog."
12.17.2006 8:42am
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
For what it's worth, I'm an atheist, free will skeptic and a moral relativist, and I don't see any logical relation between the three views. Most atheists are libertarians (that is, believe in free will) and believe in universal moral principles. And while most moral relativists are atheists, I've met plenty of theists who espouse a robust "live and let live" philosophy that has strong hues of relativism.

However that may be, to the extent that my peculiar philosophical posture is "problematic" for theists, they need not be too concerned--Ilya's right that even among atheists I am in the (vanishingly small) minority, and I don't see, say, free will skepticism catching fire any time soon. (Evidence: There's not even a catchy name for free will skepticism yet. Among academic philosophers, Galen Strawson and Tamler Sommers are the only proponents I can think of. (Then again, Darwin was also a proponent of the view, so that's at least one "prominent" atheist on board.))

I'd also want to be careful about the meaning of moral relativism because it's been rendered such a bogeyman in contemporary culture. (When I tell even the staunchest atheists that I'm a relativist, the typical response is wide-eyed, slack-jawed, horrified incredulity.) Moral relativism is not the claim that morally "anything goes." Rather, it is the claim (at least on one conception of the view) that moral and ethical propositions are determined (in part) by some set of social, environmental, cultural, psychological, etc. contexts. Key word being "determined." (Some species of relativists might deny that anything "determines" moral content, and would argue that we more or less just make it up as we go, but that kind of moral positivism doesn't necessarily follow from relativism.)

At all events, I'm not sure I understand what's so unsettling about the notion that there are no (or that we lack epistemic access to) putatively universal determinants of moral content. Thankfully, Ilya's point that even the most heinous of moralities can (and has been) universalized provides some useful perspective.
12.17.2006 12:25pm
SANE (mail):
Since it appears I am making the Congressional Record here, I'll take the opportunity to respond to AnandaG who suggests the same as marghlar et al:

Responding to a different commenter who said: "Atheism taken to its logical self-consistant conclusion is materialistic."


No it isn't. (There, see, I can argue just like SANE and the other theists!)

Seriously, if you think this, here's a worksheet with some premises and a conclusion:

1. There's no God (atheism)
2.
3.
4.
5. Conclusion: Everything is physical.

Please fill in one or more premises in the 2-4 spaces such that (5) follows from the others.
I am merely repeating myself but from this vantage it might be better understood to those not convinced how confused I am. Look at number 1. It is reminescent of randoid's no 1 factual premise of Rand's. Either there is some logic which precedes it or it is merely guess work. As guess work, what the meta-ethicists here have referred to as "axioms of universal agreement" as though the word "axiom" changes the nature of the endeavor or as though "universal agreement" somehow converts it to a fixed entity. Neither is obviously true. And, simply crying foul as maghlar did earlier and saying "even mathematics" uses axioms, my response to that would be so what? What does math have to do with what we're talking about?

The view that holds there is a Divine Truth Giver might indeed make the argument that the Divine ground of Being provides a participatory experience of the Truth of Existence that men can and do indeed share as an ontological matter. Thus, the quarternarian representative terms of existence, Self, Society, Divine, World, which noted earlier.

But unless there is within the atheist's world view some mechanism to penetrate such a truth of existence (i.e., there is no Divine) as an antecedent to the syllogism offered by AnandaG, it is merely air being forced into words like the language of bees.

But indeed, for "serious" atheists, there is always an antecedent. And that antecedent is what Professor Somin has ignored, either willfully or, shall we say, due to a shortcoming in his philosophical training. To be sure, we are certain he is an excellently trained teacher of the law so we don't mean to demean his expertise or worth in any way only that he joins the ranks of many modern "philosophers" who are actually, in their "meta-ethics" anti-philosophic because at the end of the day, they all tend to say what maghlar says about what he can "know" (which is nothing but logical tautologies) and that is about as anti-philosophic as it gets. And the reason for this is that the moment one says I can't know any truth he has abandoned the Philo Sophia and embraced something else completely.
12.17.2006 12:43pm
SANE (mail):
"reminescent" should have been obviously reminiscent.
12.17.2006 1:06pm
plunge (mail):
"Morality requires free-will,"

I love statements like this. I doubt the author can ever explain what he means by it, or even by the two key terms in the claim.
12.17.2006 1:19pm
plunge (mail):
Perhaps those that believe that the non-existence of god has an effect on morality can explain how the existence of god would have an effect. Plato skewered this idea long ago, and I've never heard anything refuting him that didn't amount to flustered obfuscation and an attempt to change the subject.

No matter how really really really powerful and fundamental you are, rape is either wrong, or it isn't. Either the existence of god is irrelevant to what is or isn't moral, or morality is merely arbitrary: commands backed up with power, but without moral content.
12.17.2006 1:25pm
marghlar:
To be sure, we are certain he is an excellently trained teacher of the law so we don't mean to demean his expertise or worth in any way only that he joins the ranks of many modern "philosophers" who are actually, in their "meta-ethics" anti-philosophic because at the end of the day, they all tend to say what maghlar says about what he can "know" (which is nothing but logical tautologies) and that is about as anti-philosophic as it gets.

And this is where you fundamentally misunderstand me. I never said that I cannot know anything except logical tautologies. I said that such tautologies are the only statements that can be proven beyond any possibility of doubt, because they require no intervening sense reference to be evaluated as true.

I do not think that it is a realistic meaning of the word "know" to say that we only "know" things we can prove beyond all doubt. I think that when we use the word "know", we mean that we think something is probably true beyond some threshold level of probability. You cannot "prove" any fact to me, including the fact of your divine revelation, so how can you demand "proof" of me, in that sense? All you can show is that propositions about the real world are more or less likely to be true or false.

In other words, I'm saying that when ever we say that we know something, or make an unconditional assertion of fact, what our language really conveys when you get to the bottom of it is that we are expressing our belief that something is likely. And even if I am wrong about that, and that is not the standard understanding, it is the only one that really is defensible, if one pays any attention at all to epistemology. Infallible foundationalism just doesn't have many followers anymore, precisely because it is so indefensible.

Thus, atheists do not claim to be able to "prove" that a god does not exist in the mathematical sense. Rather, we say that we think, based on our experiences and our reason, that an entity fitting the description given by standard theistic accounts of god seems unlikely to exist. That is not just made up, that is our attempt to reconcile the likelihood of a fact about the world. That's what I mean when I refer to reason and evidence as the grounds of atheism -- not proof positive (because no one can have that about non-trivial truth claims) but probable likelihood.

So, this is why we dispute you when you say that atheists cannot (are not permitted?) believe what many of them profess to belive, either regarding the existence of god or the possibility of ethical universals. At bottom, it is a dispute about what it means to "believe" or "know" something. You are demanding of atheism a level of belief that is just indefensible. I depend on knowledge to get anything done from the most trivial to the most profound decisions in my life. If I didn't know anything I could prove formally, I would have no ability to live in the world. Luckily, I don't depend on a formal proof to support knowledge; I depend on sense evidence and reasoning, including some axioms which have tended to work in practice.

Now, i don't disagree that constructing ethical claims from those sources is difficult, but there have been many, many people who have sincerely believed that there are universal truths derived from experience. To say that "If A is an atheist, he must also be a moral relativist" is a fallacy, because it is demonstrably false. I can disprove a claim that A implies B by showing a situation in which it does not, as Jim Hsu pointed out above. Jim Hsu is both an atheist and he is not a moral relativist. So Ilya was right when he called this claim a fallacy.

Now, you seem to be interested in pursuing a different claim: that atheists aren't justified in believing what they in fact believe. That seems to be the real crux of this matter. And now you can see why I disagree -- because I don't think that justification requires the sort of formal proof that you seem to demand (and which your own revelation would also fail, right? You can't logically prove to me that you've had any truth revealed to you, can you?)

And by the by -- thanks for calling me a meta-ethicist (I mean that sincerely, as I think it is a very interesting discipline) but I'm no philosopher, just somebody interested in these sorts of questions.
12.17.2006 6:30pm
r78:
SANE

Still waiting for a response to:


I challenge you to detail one moral system that you believe is theistic and does not fall prey to charge of moral relativism.

Every religion trims its sails to comport with culture (and vice versa)
12.17.2006 6:38pm
plunge (mail):
Yep. All the purported sins of non-believers and morality end up applying just as much to theistic morality. It's just that for some reason, people are more willing to give a pass on logic to theistic claims and theology.
12.17.2006 6:42pm
marghlar:
r78: I'd say your misuing the term moral relativism in the same way that SANE was above...finding different moral vaues than a previous generation would have doesn't make someone a moral relativist if they think that the values they've identified are objectively correct in a way that all other values are not. I think many theists make such claims, and are therefore not relativists. (And indeed, very few people self-identify as moral relativists, theist, agnostic or atheist.)

Where religion often skips over its difficulties is more in the area of moral epistemology and meta-ethics -- it is often vague and obfuscatory about both the nature of morality, and how we come to know moral truths. It is not always cavalier in this manner -- many theologians have tried hard to reconcile these issues, just not satisfactorily in my view (for the set I am familiar with). Which isn't to bash religion for not being able to solve thorny problems in the theory of ethics -- it's just to think that believing in a deity is unlikely to convincingly resolve most of the significant ethical dilemnas that so perplex and puzzle professional ethicists and interested observers.
12.17.2006 6:44pm
Tracy Coyle (mail) (www):
marghlar: a fair point (lack of knowledge about me), however, Tracyism should on it's face, be self evident, that my system applies solely to me. I do not expect anyone else to follow it. I judge other people not by my rules, but the rules they proclaim for themselves. I do not believe I have the right to always act in my own best interest, I simply act as if I do.

I have a responsibility to myself to adhere to these rules as best as I can but it is a often changing landscape I walk.

If some law or religion disputes or disagrees with my doing so, I either ignore it as irrelevant (a law in Islam that I can not walk around with a bare head is of no concern to me here - however, I understand there are consequences for my position should I try to enter Mecca. Also, there are laws in this country - don't rob a bank - which while I might consider a hinderence to my actions in support of best interest I must consider the possible outcomes/consequences of my actions in light of the owners of the bank objecting).

It is apparent to me - and probably to most other reasonable people, that most people do not act in their best interest.

Porkchop: if you say so! I spent some time adhering to Christianity and decided it was ...incomplete... A friend suggested I'd make a good Buddhist...no thanks.

Most of the discussion here seems to revolve around the conclusions others have made and their agreement or disagreement with them. I have been accused, often, of willful ignorance. I am not interested in the conclusions of Rand, or Kant or anyone else. Whether I reach the same conclusions as they do or not only reinforces the thought that we, individually, face the same questions as those that came before us and we have found their answers/conclusions to be less than satisfying to us. Why then waste the time to determine if one is more right than another, or if one religion is more right than another?

I sought a system for me, by me, that helps me make decisions. I have no need for a higher power or some esoteric rationalization. Does this action promote my best interest? Does stealing from someone promote my best interest? I can conceive of a situation where it would, but the possible consequences require a very significant benefit or fundamental outcome unobtainable any other way.

If I take for myself the ability to always act in my own best interest, I concede your ability to do so also. If your actions harm my interests, I will attempt to correct the situation, but I will not hold it against you personally!

If after thousands of years and millions of attempts there are no good answers to these puzzles then one must state: either there are no good answers, ever; or the questions are wrong.

What is your marghlarism? What is your porkchopism?
12.18.2006 12:06am
marghlar:
Tracyism should on it's face, be self evident, that my system applies solely to me. I do not expect anyone else to follow it. I judge other people not by my rules, but the rules they proclaim for themselves. I do not believe I have the right to always act in my own best interest, I simply act as if I do.

Well, that actually makes you either an extreme sort of moral relativist (morality is relative not just across cultures and epochs but indeed for each individual) although it also seems almost anti-realist (in the sense that you seem to be saying that there are no such things as moral rules that everyone ought to be following).

As for my own ethics (my "marghlarism") I tend towards preference utiltiarianism, although I also tend to favor more of a rule-based utilitarianism than an act-based one. What this means is that I think ethics ought to be a search for rules that tend to maximize more people's preferences than they defeat, subject to the caveat that preferences are weighted for the strength with which they are held. If you think about it, you might see that most of the major rules we develop as a society can be justified by such an approach.
12.18.2006 12:18am
SANE (mail):
r78: you continue to operate on the assumption that the E Dilemma discussed here is not answered by Ockham. And you continue, as does maghlar and other "modern philosophers" because you start with a bias, which I have detailed sufficiently here in previous comments. Now, you all respond that there is a bias for a theistic frame of reference. And of course the answer is most certainly, and the a philosophic theist will concede that readily.

The Divine Transcendant removes the relativity precisely because it is the Divine ground of Being which provides the framework to experience the Truth of Existence. A part of that Truth, only a part, is in the realm of morality.

But an atheist begins the discussion with an enormous bias in the other direction. But ALL of you, except marghlar and others who concede the "is-ought" problem, begin with a bias you can't even see. But even when you see the bias or is-ought problem, you operate on your bias that it is the other "horn" of an equal problem for theists.

Now the difference between the so called E Dilemma and the is-ought one is one not of application but of kind. They are different because the E D presupposes the Atheist's world view in contradiction to the theist's and the is-ought problem ARISES out of the atheist's.

So all the glib references to these so called "two horns" are only two horns when you are convinced that the Divine can be gored. Otherwise it is one horn and not even relevant to the believer.

At the end of the day, after all othe book words and descriptions generated by modern moral philosophers, all of you on "the defense of the atheist" side adopt "axioms" that are loaded to the hilt with ontological assumptions that you ignore cavalierly by pointing to the "defense of the theist" side and say: prove yours is better according to <i><b>my </b></i>world view. Then when the discussion has broken down because both sides are talking past one another, modern moral philosophers, rather recently by the way as these things go, created a notion of meta-ethics to pretend that they could "transcend" the biases by examining only the source of the ought claims not the validity of the claims themselves.

But that very "transcendance" is a huge ontological statement.

I will conclude by noting an irony. (And recall that no serious person, not I, not Michael B, not the writer of the original essay blogged about by the good professor, suggested that an individual could not arrive at and behave morally and be an atheist. The issue is what does atheism do to human existence -- to being? This is an ontological question not one about individual moral codes. And the ontological question is what turns all modern atheistic world views into relative propositions.

The essay writer sought to get at this at the prudential level of a specific western society. What happens to society when it loses its ontological anchor? Granted he spoke in moral terms but that was the import.) The irony is that most (not all) of you on the "defend the atheist" side adopt wholeheartedly the presuppositions of modern science (that is why meghlar speaks of the "epistemological problems", which arise out of these presuppositions) yet the results of your own scientific work you ignore. Quantum physics has lead to the quite unbelievable experimental results that when a human being goes to observe a material object in the world in order to measure it, he affects and changes the object's very nature (at least as it appears to him in any empirical sense) in radical ways. While only analogous to our situation, it is a good lesson. When you examine the world from a presupposed world view, your ontological perch makes all the difference in the world.

Go back and study Plato himself, not just the modern philosophers' post Enlightenment troubled by the E D and you will discover something fascinating. Michael B tried to get at this with maghlar. But there was no budging maghlar because he is that man who has spent whatever time he has working on these questions from suppositions he cannot recognize or escape from.
12.18.2006 8:01am
Tom952 (mail):
Religion is not real; it is a collection of willful beliefs unsupported by any evidence. No one communicates with the creator of the universe, and the Bible (all of the various versions "edited" by mortals) contains glaring errors of fact.

Any attempt to reach a reasoned, logical conclusion based on religion will fail, since reason and logic must be based on objective facts to be valid. For example, since angels are imaginary, one could argue endlessly about the characteristics of angels, but no defensible conclusion could be reached. Moral codes based on religion are arbitrary, based on beliefs rather than reality.

Objective reality can be used to define a right or wrong policy based on measurable, observable outcome. For example, society will be more orderly and prosperous if people do not murder one another, but instead create orderly processes to investigate disputes and dole out punishment fairly. Or, we can condemn adultery because we observe the wasteful chaos it causes. The lack of an unproven, imaginary supernatural authority is meaningless.
12.18.2006 11:27am
plunge (mail):
"The Divine Transcendant removes the relativity precisely because it is the Divine ground of Being which provides the framework to experience the Truth of Existence."

Don't you wish that you could make arguments like this?

"But officer, I don't have to pay my parking ticket, because hoopy gooney froofy oop!"

Let's face it, even you can't explain how anything you just said answers the E dilemna. I doubt you can even explain what you are talking about. Positivism may have gone way too far, but it was at least good enough for the purposes of pointing out that many theology metaphysical arguments are just Sokal-style goobledygook.

It isn't a matter of different axioms, but rather different standards for what constitutes a meaningful and coherent argument. Theists in reference to God are often willing to accept explanations that don't explain anything and use concepts no one can define that simply say that they answer logical objections without explaining how they do. Then they turn around and demand exacting, clear, simple, and precise explanations from non-believers. It's hypocrisy, not axiomatica.
12.18.2006 11:46am
SANE (mail):

It isn't a matter of different axioms, but rather different standards for what constitutes a meaningful and coherent argument. Theists in reference to God are often willing to accept explanations that don't explain anything and use concepts no one can define that simply say that they answer logical objections without explaining how they do. Then they turn around and demand exacting, clear, simple, and precise explanations from non-believers. It's hypocrisy, not axiomatica.
Plunge, since you and others on this thread have a block in this matter, let's reduce it to a simpler analogy.

Two men are engaged in a discussion. One says, based upon these mathematical axioms, which I can't prove but well enough seem true to me, I can resolve problem X. The second says, I reject your axioms and instead hold that they and your mathematical calculations omit an entire realm of the problem X which they don't even touch upon.

You, the first man, say, "what nonsense are you speaking of? Before you can criticize my axioms, prove to me according to my ontological rules that your system is any better than mine!"

Like the first man, you reduce human existence to ratiocination simply or ratiocination following some axiom you have divined.

Now, you can whine all day about "theists" but one would suggest that given the number of people who speak about a Divine ground of being and an experience of it, even if there might be different articulations of the particulars, one would suggest that it is not quite so easily dismissed as you suggest. But this is no argument or proof, only a data point that might make one ponder a bit.
12.18.2006 1:05pm
marghlar:
They are different because the E D presupposes the Atheist's world view in contradiction to the theist's and the is-ought problem ARISES out of the atheist's.

So all the glib references to these so called "two horns" are only two horns when you are convinced that the Divine can be gored. Otherwise it is one horn and not even relevant to the believer.


Sorry, but you'll have to explain to me why the Divine makes any difference to the is-ought problem. You have said that certain facts about the universe were revealed to you, and that you (with Ockham) accept the Divine Command Theory prong of the E dilemna. Well and good -- for you, the source of all moral rules are the preferences of god.

Well, Hume's critique still stands. You claim to know what your god prefers. On what basis do you infer that you are morally obliged to do whatever he prefers? All you've told me you know are ontological facts -- god exists, god prefers certain things. How can you ever demonstrate to someone who disagrees with you that your god's will defines the good that he is wrong? How do you convince someone who believes your god to be the devil? More importantly, how do you convince someone who received the same revelation as you, but thinks that although that revelation conveyed to him that god exists and prefers certain things, some of those things are morally wrong or offensive to him and he will not do them?

All you have is an "is" The only way you get get to an "ought" is by postulating some sort of axiom that transforms is statements into ought statements. This is not a swipe at Ockham's ideas -- ALL ethical propositions, if one agrees with Hume, have to be based at some level on axiomatic premises.

Quantum physics has lead to the quite unbelievable experimental results that when a human being goes to observe a material object in the world in order to measure it, he affects and changes the object's very nature (at least as it appears to him in any empirical sense) in radical ways.

Heisenberg has been so misunderstood by so many people; all he was saying is that the act of measurement is a physical process, and that sometimes, that act disrupts what it measures. It doesn't "change the objects nature in radical ways" -- it just means that if the way we detect objects is to see how they interact with photons, observation gets more complicated when the object's mass is small enough that the photon can interfere with its momentum in a statistically significant way. If the only way we could see objects was to bounce high-intensity lasers off of them, we'd see that "observation alters what is observed" in a very straightforward sense. Heisenberg's priniciple is important, because it emphasizes that we gather information about our world through a limited toolbox that isn't always adequate to the task. But it is often taken by mystics to mean far more than it says.

Go back and study Plato himself, not just the modern philosophers' post Enlightenment troubled by the E D and you will discover something fascinating. Michael B tried to get at this with maghlar. But there was no budging maghlar because he is that man who has spent whatever time he has working on these questions from suppositions he cannot recognize or escape from.

I've read Plato, thanks. I've read some of him in Greek, although I haven't gotten around to reading Euthyphro in the original language. I think that what I've said is a meaningful interpretation of what Plato meant, although I'm importing his meaning into modern philosophical terms, I freely grant you that. Plato seemed to believe that the eida (including and especially the Good) preceded the gods and everything else that existed, and that therefore, the gods could not control or alter what the good was. In other words, the forms (eide), including the good (agathos), preceded everything that exists (ouios) in the ordered universe (the kosmos). The forms (including the Good) also existed separately from, and apart from, the creator of the world (the Deimiourgos). All of that is from the Timaeus.

So Plato would disagree with you that piety is whatever the gods prefer; he thinks that there is a form of such action that precedes the existence of the gods, and is external to the Demiurge. In other words, our efforts to elucidate the character of piety or goodness cannot depend on what a creator prefers for their resolution. Given certain posited characteristics of a creator, the Demiurge's preferences might provide some evidence of what actions are good, but he cannot alter the Good and it exists outside of him.

Thus, although you can assume as an axiom that the Demiurge is never wrong about ethical questions (however we could communicate with him about the issues), you can provide precious little evidence about that proposition without having both a theory of what the Good actually consists in, and a method of demonstrating what the Demiurge prefers. Plato therefore cleverly skewered the notion that goodness can be defined by reference to what another being prefers.

Plato is a very intersesting thinker, but unfortunately he suffers from the same tendency displayed by many theists on this board -- he consistently refuses to define his terms in anything other than vague metaphors. This is a great rhetorical tactic, because it's hard to critique a view that is neither clearly articulated nor identifiable, and vague generalities can sound good without being easily falsifiable. Part of the reason philosopher's distrust this sort of reasoning is because it is just as easy to deploy it to advance bad ideas as good. So, when you said,

The Divine Transcendant removes the relativity precisely because it is the Divine ground of Being which provides the framework to experience the Truth of Existence. A part of that Truth, only a part, is in the realm of morality.

It's hard to see how that same argument couldn't advance Thuggism as a revealed moral truth. It provides no basis for analyzing the validity of competing truth claims. You don't say what you means by "morality," although I've pinned you down on that a bit. You don't say what the "divine ground of being" is. You don't say what you mean by the "experience the truth of existence."

If I was to take these claims one at a time, based on what you've said above, I get something like:

1. God has revealed to me that God created all things.
2. As such, I have experienced the "truth of existence" (what does this mean? that you know things exist? that you know everything? that you know certain defined things that were revealed to you?)
3. Part of the "truth of existence" that was revealed to me was "morality."
4. Ergo, I know what is moral and what isn't.

Above, you said that "morality" = "whatever God prefers." So, I can translate this above into:

1. God has revealed to me that God created all things.
2. As such, I have experienced the "truth of existence".
3. Part of the "truth of existence" that was revealed to me was God prefers certain things, and would like me to do what he prefers.
4. Ergo, I should do whatever God prefers.

Do you see how inserting the previously-clarified terminology helps show that the is-ought problem is still there? And do you see how a Thugee could make exactly the same claim, with no internal way to refute it? Do you see how Islamists can make the claim that murdering Christians is moral? This is why I distrust theist claims so much. This sort of methodology can justify literally anything. That's pretty scary.
12.18.2006 3:47pm
marghlar:
Also: your whole system rests crucially on humans having the ability to determine what is a true revelation and what is a false one. Since there is an enormous diversity of different, competing religious accounts of religious truth in the world, most of which are mutually exclusive, you have a high burden of proof to show that people are capable of judging accurately what is and is not a true revelation. Whatever religion you pick, you have to acknowledge that the majority of people do not follow that religion, and in fact actively belief that they have received an opposing revelation.
12.18.2006 3:49pm
SANE (mail):
marghlar: first things. how did you do on you your exam? Well I trust.

second things. That we both have read Plato in the original Greek is something shared with a lot of folks and it doesn't increase any one of our claims to have properly understood him. Your rendition is fairly textbookish, so I won't get into that now. I would suggest that you profit by reading Voegelin. And, if you already have, re-read him. Why do you suppose Plato composed his works in the way he did? This is what Michael B. suggested earlier also.

third things. your reliance on Hume simply and completely makes the point I made earlier. You insist on a transcendent perch of modern reason, which is fraught with ontological presuppositions, to judge all experiences of man. Why do you suppose that is possible or even important? Why did Socrates choose not to save his own neck? Does man exist apart from the world in which he participates?

fourth things. and this gets to you comment re quantum physics. All of what I was referring to is not captured in the HP. You also might wish to consider wave-particle duality and quantum entanglement. It simply is not quite as straightforward as you suggest. I would recommend for those non scientists or neo-scientists the following lay piece in the new york times: Quantum Trickery: Testing Einstein's Strangest Theory By DENNIS OVERBYE (NYT) 3131 words Published: December 27, 2005 (it is hidden in the for pay archives), but i reproduce the beginning here:

Einstein said there would be days like this.

This fall scientists announced that they had put a half dozen beryllium atoms into a ''cat state.''

No, they were not sprawled along a sunny windowsill. To a physicist, a ''cat state'' is the condition of being two diametrically opposed conditions at once, like black and white, up and down, or dead and alive.

These atoms were each spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. Moreover, like miniature Rockettes they were all doing whatever it was they were doing together, in perfect synchrony. Should one of them realize, like the cartoon character who runs off a cliff and doesn't fall until he looks down, that it is in a metaphysically untenable situation and decide to spin only one way, the rest would instantly fall in line, whether they were across a test tube or across the galaxy.

The idea that measuring the properties of one particle could instantaneously change the properties of another one (or a whole bunch) far away is strange to say the least -- almost as strange as the notion of particles spinning in two directions at once. The team that pulled off the beryllium feat, led by Dietrich Leibfried at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, in Boulder, Colo., hailed it as another step toward computers that would use quantum magic to perform calculations.

But it also served as another demonstration of how weird the world really is according to the rules, known as quantum mechanics.

The joke is on Albert Einstein, who, back in 1935, dreamed up this trick of synchronized atoms -- ''spooky action at a distance,'' as he called it -- as an example of the absurdity of quantum mechanics.

''No reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit this,'' he, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen wrote in a paper in 1935.

Today that paper, written when Einstein was a relatively ancient 56 years old, is the most cited of Einstein's papers. But far from demolishing quantum theory, that paper wound up as the cornerstone for the new field of quantum information.

Nary a week goes by that does not bring news of another feat of quantum trickery once only dreamed of in thought experiments: particles (or at least all their properties) being teleported across the room in a microscopic version of Star Trek beaming; electrical ''cat'' currents that circle a loop in opposite directions at the same time; more and more particles farther and farther apart bound together in Einstein's spooky embrace now known as ''entanglement.'' At the University of California, Santa Barbara, researchers are planning an experiment in which a small mirror will be in two places at once.

The only point I was trying to make with q.physics (science since Descartes itself is laden with ontological import -- or the hallowing out of human existence qua human) is that given this state of affairs in science, you wish to suggest to me that man's relationship to the Divine First Cause is somehow subject to a deductive logic that can be reduced to mathematical symbols? Are you serious?

But, assuming you are serious about what I can expect your answer to be, let's return to where we left off before your exam. Let's assume for the sake of this discussion that I concede the point. Revealed truth as experienced can not be the subject of a modern discussion based upon rules of logic and modern mathematically based reason as you posit them.

But you insist that unless we have such a discussion, life is foolish or just plain dangerous. You point to the murderous Islamic law of the Shari'a. I would respond that you haven't paid attention to the Terms of Existence i referenced earlier but pay it no mind for now.

Let's turn to the rationalists and their ethical systems. As many rational modern thinkers as there are, there are different "systems". Why is that? Which one is better? Which one is more just? Now, don't just point me to Aristotle's discussion of this, because that won't solve your problem since like your rejection of Plato and the import of the Timaeus, you reject Telos.

Before your exam, you were going to show me how modern ethical systems (not Revealed Divine truth) were somehow an improvement over the theistic ones. Let's try just one. You mentioned Kant. That might make this slow going but it appears we can both assume some time has been spent studying the original texts. Let's ignore all of the "commentary" because that will just create a bog out which we'd reappear.

All the best

NB: I don't know how deep your study goes, but have you examined the philosophic basis of modern science? Descartes' application of the mathesis universalis? Symbol? Figurate extension? We need not get into it, but I would suggest it is ulimately important, if not most ultimately so, to this discussion.
12.18.2006 5:44pm
SANE (mail):
should be: ". . .just create a bog out which we'd NEVER reappear."
12.18.2006 5:47pm
Michael B (mail):
SANE, I appreciate your comments (those replying to or alluding to this comment). However, I doubt any insincerity or mere cleverness is to be found in Prof. Somin's originating post. I think it's an honestly held opinion, albeit one that is overly leveraged or over-stated in suggesting the idea of a fallacy, which invokes a more formal proposition.
12.18.2006 8:26pm
marghlar:
SANE, this discussion you are talking about having seems cumbersome for a comments thread. Why don't you email me at marghlar at gmail.com and we can take it from there?

Also, I'm pretty short on time these days (lots of articles to edit and research to do) so it would save me time if rather than give me reading assignments you could summarize some info. I haven't read Voegelin (although I've read some secondary sources that briefly discuss his work). Can you give me the main claims he makes that you think are important to this discussion? It would save a lot of time. (I'd also note that it's ironic that you would critique the attempt to use secondary sources for understanding/applying Kant's work, while seeming to think that it was critical to do so in order to comprehend Plato, but that's another point altogether).

Finally, I have never said, at any point in this discussion, that I think mathematical analysis or deductive logic are the only tools in a philosophers toolkit. Inductive reasoning is important; so is phronesis. All I'm suggesting is that we ought to be trying to understand the discussion we are having, and using vague terms for which you refuse to provide clear definitions is not particularly helpful. One of the reasons I tend to prefer Aristotle to Plato (although Plato's prose is better, to be sure).

Finally, it is not very helpful for you to inform me that a particular proposition is "fraught with ontological presuppositions" without informing which presuppositions you think I am making, and what you think is wrong with them.

(And the exam went fairly well; I won't really find out how well until the middle of next month.)

p.s. You're not telling me new things about quantum theory; I was responding to your claim about our tendency to somehow mystically alter what we observe. I agree that the quantum world is a very strange place, and our ability to understand it in human metaphors may be quite limited. I never claimed that human comprehension or understanding was perfect (how boring the world might be if it were) but I do think it is the only game in town for people who want to make philosophic choices on the basis of anything other than arguments from authority or blind faith.
12.18.2006 9:17pm
SANE (mail):
Time also is pressing upon me in from all directions so I will leave off here and if we can find time we will email. I also have a secondary email sane.org@gmail.com.

But before concluding I will just respond quickly to the points raised.

Voegelin is not merely a secondary source of Plato. He was, I believe the one who adequately responded to L. Strauss' view of the separateness or the incompatibility between Jerusalem and Athens (although Strauss would argue for the high respect Athens must have for Jerusalem). While there is plenty of room to challenge Voegelin (quite possibly to the charge of historical ontology), his ability to pierce the corporate veil, as it were, of the Ancients is quite remarkable. Some choice quotes that might get at this:


"Human society is not merely a fact, or an event, in the external world to be studied by an observer like a natural phenomenon. Though it has externality as one of its important components, it is as a whole a little world, a cosmion, illuminated with meaning from within by the human beings who continuously create and bear it as the mode and condition of their self-realization. It is illuminated through an elaborate symbolism, in various degrees of compactness and differentiation--from rite, through myth, to theory--and this symbolism illuminates it with meaning in so far as the symbols make the internal structure of such a cosmion, the relations between its members and groups of members, as well as its existence as a whole, transparent for the mystery of human existence. The self-illumination of society through symbols is an integral part of social reality, and one may even say its essential part, for through such symbolization the members of a society experience it as more than an accident or a convenience; they experience it as of their human essence. And, inversely, the symbols express the experience that man is fully man by virtue of his participation in a whole which transcends his particular existence, by virtue of his participation in the xynon, the common, as Heraclitus called it ..." [Voegelin NSP:27-28]

"By spirit we understand the openness of man to the divine ground of his existence: by estrangement from the spirit, the closure and the revolt against the ground. Through spirit man actualizes his potential to partake of the divine. He rises thereby to the imago Dei which it is his destiny to be. Spirit in this classical sense of nous, is that which all men have in common, the xynon as Heraclitus has called it. Through the life of the spirit, which is common to all, the existence of man becomes existence in community. In the openness of the common spirit there develops the public life of society." p. 7 "Spirit is the openness of man to the divine ground of his existence; for Aristotle the yearning questioning after the ground is the beginning of all philosophizing." p. 21 [Voegelin, "The German University and the Order of German Society" in CW 12:7,21]

"This center of energy, whatever may be its nature, is engaged in a process, a process that cannot be observed from without, like the movement of a planet or the decomposition of a crystal. Rather, it has the character of an inner 'illumination'; i.e., it is not blind but can be experienced in its dimensions of past and future [cf. Mann's preface to Joseph and his Brothers]. The problem of past and future as dimensions of consciousness must be distinguished from the 'external' past and future. Knowing a fact of history on the basis of sources or predicting an event on the basis of laws of development are complex derived phenomena. Above all, one must avoid the misconception that the dimensions of consciousness are something like empty stretches on which data can be entered, the misconception that there is something like a time-problem 'as such', apart form the process of a substance. I do not remember something that lies 'in the past,' but I have a past because I can make present a completed process of consciousness--either through a deliberate effort of my attention or in less transparent processes of so-called 'free associations.' Past and future are the present illuminatory dimensions of the process in which the energy center is engaged.

"In the illuminatory dimensions of past and present, one becomes aware not of empty spaces but of the structures of a finite process between birth and death... The causal series cannot begin in time because we have no experience of a beginning 'in time'; more precisely, one could say that because we have no experience whatsoever of a time in which something might begin--for the only time of which we do have experience is the inner experience of the illuminated dimension of consciousness, the process that drops away, at both ends, into inexperienceable darkness." [Voegelin Anam:20-21]


I went into fair detail in my discussion of Descartes on the "fraught with ontological propositions."

Do you not see this when you reduce a philosophic discussion to a mathematical or scientific proof? I also discussed this in fair detail for this kind of forum when I explained what must take place to say there is no Divine. Even if we take your statement on atheism and "reasoning". You say,

Thus, atheists do not claim to be able to "prove" that a god does not exist in the mathematical sense. Rather, we say that we think, based on our experiences and our reason, that an entity fitting the description given by standard theistic accounts of god seems unlikely to exist. That is not just made up, that is our attempt to reconcile the likelihood of a fact about the world. That's what I mean when I refer to reason and evidence as the grounds of atheism -- not proof positive (because no one can have that about non-trivial truth claims) but probable likelihood.

Do you not recognize the ontological perch upon which you must stand to say this? Let's ask it differently? Based upon what do you say this? You have provided the answer:"based on our experiences and our reason, that an entity fitting the description given by standard theistic accounts of god seems unlikely to exist." This statement tells us two things. One you have never had the experience. But billions have. That doesn't seem persuasive for atheists. Reason tells you otherwise. What do you mean by "reason"? Once you begin to explain that to me, as you already have, deduction, induction, phronesis. Depending upon how you are using phronesis, none of these extend beyond material existence and as such make certain predisposed claims about being. The "reason" that you are using of course has little to do with Logos, I suspect, and far more with ratiocination. A calculating. That is most certainly an ontological assertion.

For Voegelin and many others, philosophy itself is a transcendence. But it is because it begins in search of the Divine ground of being. Now, V would say that revelation is but one path to that Divine ground. But Divine it is and and human existence is most certainly participatory in the truth of existence.

Once you've redacted human existence to what you mean by reason, you've presupposed the hollowness of it all before beginning.
12.18.2006 11:56pm
marghlar:
I'll try and send you an email within the next week to talk in more depth, about Voegelin and such, but for now I did want to reply to this:

One you have never had the experience. But billions have. That doesn't seem persuasive for atheists.

It would be persuasive if billions had had the same revelation. But in fact, no one revelation can claim such a large following. To take the three largest theistic groups, the claims of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are fundamentally incompatible. So, I'd say the most likely inference is that people tend to believe they've received revelation. However, it's hard to draw the conclusion that truth is likely to be revealed by any particular religion, when no one potential truth-revelation can claim even a majority of the world's theists. That seems to me to be strong evidence against the kind of truth claim you want to make.

Also, it is false to say that I've "never had the experience." I grew up in a deeply religious household, and was myself deeply devout in my youth. Eventually, I came to believe that my "faith" had been in fact a combination of desire to believe something for which I had no evidence, and a tendency towards ecstatic experience which has always been part of human history. But that doesn't mean that it was truth, any more than it was truth for the Dionysians running wild or the Native Americans who saw their spirit guide after starving themselves for long enough. Looking back on years of belief, I can't think of one aspect of it that couldn't be adquately explained by wishful thinking. What I believe now makes far more sense to me than what I believed before. You shouldn't assume that those who disagree with you haven't had the same experiences as you.
12.19.2006 7:39am
SANE (mail):
But then permit me one other word. But the vast shared human experience in the Divine ground of Being, even if the particulars are subject to differentiation, borrowing a Voegelerian term which I don't necessarily accept, would suggest that your "experience" index (meaning the mass and historical one of mankind) would suggest that there is a huge part of human existence captured by this experience that atheists just ignore in their rush to post-Enlightenment reason.

But even more than this. Strauss, nothwithstanding his separation between Jerusalem and Athens which E.V. I believe adequately refutes, posits that a true philosopher is not capable of denying the claim of revealed truth. As such it is left an open question to him. And in arriving at that understanding, he responds to your point about competing claims to revealed truth. When men set out to climb to the peak of the tallest mountain in a range of mountains, they must do so at some risk. From the ground, as they look up, the peaks are all covered in a cloud. So they look at the mountains, the base, the perimeter, the angles, and they determine the most likely to be the highest. Then they proceed. Once at the top, they can determine that some mountains clearly do not measure up. But other clouds seem as high or higher but it is not clear because of the mists and clouds at that altitude. Sometimes other mountains block the view of yet others. This might be likened to the philospher. This group then descends and sets off for yet another mountain, not yet certain if they reached the highest peak or not. Another group of men who grew up and live at the bottom of one mountain, begin the ascent. This mountain, at least that part visible to the men, was far more revealed to them than the mountain chosen by the philosopher because they lived at and with the mountain for time immemorial. As they ascended and reached into the clouds, their journey by necessity slowed. But they continued. However, unlike the philosopher, these men were not in a rush to reach the peak. They were most certainly on their way, but they saw in every new rock and bend, new vistas and new heights they had known about this mountain for time immemorial. For them, this was to be a journey for a lifetime.
12.19.2006 8:58am
SANE (mail):
And, maghlar, I never suggested you hadn't had the "experience". All men have it in one way or another or they are simply dead. The issue is what they do with it. When I spoke of "you" and not experiencing it, I mean the intellectual exercise of denying it, which is what you do in this comment the moment you say you had it by suggesting it was just the human desire to believe something without proper "evidence" and for some "ecstatic experience". Dawkins and others of course will tell you that these experiences are just the evolutionary response our species has developed along the way and that it is as much subject to change or eradication by further evolutionary developments in man. I don't assume you agree but you've drawn some quite important, and "ontologically loaded" conclusions about your youthful experiences that you obviously conclude "fits" your "experience and reason". And, this just leads us back to your "experience" and "reason" and what you mean by "reason" and Walla we have discovered that your most basic assumptions about your existence and how you go about living with it, thinking about it, and experiencing it, are all indeed fraught with ontological meaning.
12.19.2006 9:07am
mondo dentro (mail):
The worst acts of moral relativism are committed by those who claim to have absolute truth.

SANE, as skilled and erudite a debater has he seems to be, does not seem to grasp this fundamental, paradoxical nature of Truth. And without this understanding, all of his arguments collapse utterly and totally.

Once I have a belief that says that I know the absolute (which, to me, is blasphemous to the extreme), I am free to coerce, oppress, steal, murder, rape and pillage at will, all in the name of my absolute. That is, my "absolutism" leads to the worst excesses of "relativism". (mini-proof: most of recorded human history.)

The actual moral and ethical state of affairs in the world is, thus, quite the opposite of what the "absolutists" claim. Relativists are more likely to have the capacity to be uniform in the application of their ethical principles precisely because they have a better understanding of the "absolute" nature of Truth, which is this: it is not immediately and directly accessible to us, even in the face of so-called "revealed" texts.(mini-proof: the importance of seemingly paradoxical elements in religious texts--e.g. Jesus as leader born in manger, as savior that is crucified, G-d incarnated as man, life through death, gaining by losing, etc.)

To not have this basic epistemological understanding of the centrality of paradox (and hence the necessity of "relativism") is absolutely (!) CRIPPLING in one's search for Truth with a capital T. Fundamentalists of any stripe, therefore, are the most "absolute" and yet the most incapable of grasping Truth.
12.19.2006 11:56am
Colin (mail):
I'm not inclined to make sweeping statements about "Truth with a capital T," but I find SANE's arguments unpersuasive and a little immature. His position so far seems to be that faith in the divine is the natural and proper default position, and that atheists are making a bold and affirmative ontological statement by asking for some proof beyond "the vast shared human experience in the Divine ground of Being." I see no support for this whatsoever.

Nor am I impressed by SANE's contention that "there is a huge part of human existence captured by this experience that atheists just ignore in their rush to post-Enlightenment reason." Marghlar quite clearly expressed his appreciation of that "huge part of human existence," and why and how he rejected it as a valid externally revelatory experience. He hasn't ignored the common tendency towards theism, and neither has any other atheist that I've ever read or talked to--nor have I, as another atheist. We simply don't accept that as the default, starting position, and ask for more than an internal revelation to support faith in an external force. Your mountain analogy is utterly unpersuasive; it might make a nice motivational poster, but it doesn't carry any weight for any purpose other than preaching to the choir.

SANE's arguments are mostly empty rhetoric. "All men have it in one way or another or they are simply dead" is meaningless, as marghlar said earlier. Undefined and nebulous terms thrown about willy-nilly may sound erudite, but they don't progress the debate. SANE's citations to philosophy may have more merit--I'm not qualified to judge them, having read few of the pieces he and marghlar have discussed--but his own, original writing here has been a string of unsupported, blanket assertions. There is a very fine line between ontology and onology, and some of the latter contributions to this thread walk all over it.
12.19.2006 12:46pm
smijer (mail) (www):
Yeh...

Divine command theory is defunct anyway. Euthyphro's dilemma &all. So, moral objectivists are going to have to make that assumption a priori - there's no leg up from religion. Evolutionary psychology hasn't produced much, but some discipline that relates evolution &biology is probably as close as anyone is going to get to a *derived* moral non-relativism.

Tough. Except for Eugene - I saw his posts on torture a while back. Who needs theories of relative or objective morality when one lives in a moral vacuum, anyway?
12.19.2006 2:05pm
Michael B (mail):
"To say that "If A is an atheist, he must also be a moral relativist" is a fallacy, because it is demonstrably false. ... as Jim Hsu pointed out above. Jim Hsu is both an atheist and he is not a moral relativist." marghlar

True enough, as far as it goes.

"So Ilya was right when he called this claim a fallacy." ,arghlar

You're now wrong.

Prof. Somin (Ilya) was positing a fallacy vis-a-vis Jacoby's piece an excerpt of which follows, making it clear Jacoby's critical focus is a societal, not an individual focus; in fact Jacoby explicity allows for individual exceptions, but his most critical focus is societal. The excerpt from Jacoby's piece follows:

"What society loses when it discards Judeo-Christian faith and belief in G-d is something far more difficult to replace: the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society. That is because without G-d, the difference between good and evil becomes purely subjective. What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong, but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: 'Thou shalt not murder....'

"Obviously this doesn't mean that religious people are always good, or that religion itself cannot lead to cruelty. Nor does it mean that atheists cannot be beautiful, ethical human beings. Belief in G-d alone does not guarantee goodness. But belief tethered to clear ethical values — Judeo-Christian monotheism — is society's best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones.

"The atheist alternative is a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion, and in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves."

Hence when broad societal examples are observed, the various Marxian experiments of the 20th century, compared with the West's classical liberal experiements, the latter having been broadly founded upon classical and Judeo-Christian principles/values, that societal/civilizational comparison presents stark differences.

SANE, saying that I'll risk forwarding an opinion. From a philosophical perspective, I do think you're venturing onto too assertive ground, into claims that are too positive or positivistic.
12.19.2006 2:32pm
Colin (mail):
I think that Prof. Somin is correct. Jacoby is making a very broad claim, and making very rough generalizations. He acknowledges that neither religious faith nor secularism equate to ethical behavior, but then contends that religious faith "tethered to clear ethical values" generates ethical conduct. (That faith "tethered to clear ethical values" is ethical according to its own values is a truism, of course.)

But he then compares faith "tethered to clear ethical values" to the "atheist alternative . . . a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion." That is a false comparison - he is measuring faith, leavened by ethical standards, against raw secularism. A better comparison would be an ethical faith as opposed to secularism incorporating its own ethical standards, such as a social compact. One could also compare faith with (what I would consider to be) unethical standards to a similarly (subjectively) unethical secular state. Using Michael's comparators, this would place Maoist China in comparison with, say, Saudi Arabia or Talibanate Afghanistan rather than America or post-Enlightenment Europe.
12.19.2006 3:24pm
mondo dentro (mail):
Hence when broad societal examples are observed, the various Marxian experiments of the 20th century, compared with the West's classical liberal experiements, the latter having been broadly founded upon classical and Judeo-Christian principles/values, that societal/civilizational comparison presents stark differences.

This is all nonsense.

First of all, both Fascism and Marxism are firmly embedded in the intellectual and cultural history of the West, and hence part of the same "experiment".

Second, the idea that the western liberalism is "broadly founded" on classical religious values is historically accurate in a sequential sense, but will elicit bitter laughter in anyone aware of the actual messy history of it: one could just as easily have said that liberalism arose only after people were able to break the stranglehold of religious cultural oppression. Your statement is a bit like an abusive father taking credit for how well his kids turn out.

Finally, if one's intention is to carry out an equivalent atheistic cultural history gedanken experiment (started with pristine initial conditions on a planet similar to ours in a parallel universe, perhaps?), one would have to allow for a millenium or so of bloodletting, as was witnessed in Christian Europe prior to the Enlightenment, just to see what developed before being able to claim the superiority of the historical accident that is the so-called Judeo-Christian "experiment".

Another thing: If one's self-identified "absolutism" has a place in it for honesty, then one is better served to speak of the Abrahamic tradition than of anything "Judeo-Christian", as do actual theologians. This makes it clear that Islam ("Oh... that absolutist monotheistic religion...") is of a piece with the other two.

In the end, isn't the passage you quoted from Jacoby really equivalent to this:

But belief tethered to clear ethical values [as provided by some form of authoritarian religion] is society's best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones.

Whether it be "Judeo-Christian" or otherwise is really not the point, is it? Most certainly not to Straussians, the ultimate faux-absolutist relativists!
12.19.2006 3:30pm
Michael B (mail):
"Thus, atheists do not claim to be able to "prove" that a god does not exist in the mathematical sense. Rather, we say that we think, based on our experiences and our reason, that an entity fitting the description given by standard theistic accounts of god seems unlikely to exist. That is not just made up, that is our attempt to reconcile the likelihood of a fact about the world. That's what I mean when I refer to reason and evidence as the grounds of atheism -- not proof positive (because no one can have that about non-trivial truth claims) but probable likelihood." marghlar

In addition to SANE's astute comment on this same excerpt, this is, literally, nothing beyond a solipcism, in fact it doesn't even transcend an egoism and a self-affirming piety as it essentially states "We believe, and we have faith in the idea that we think better and more profoundly or more deeply than those who disagree with us."

There are other problems as well, for example epistemological problems. Within the arena of mathematics, thus reflective of the problems that inhere to the ideality/reality nexus and divide, both trivial and "non-trivial" truth claims can be established and in fact can be subjected to proofs, both positive proofs and negative proofs (fallacies proven as such). Yet another epistemological problem reflected in that gloss is the problem of what standard should be applied to the term "know" (what constitutes knowledge), one of the most basic epistemic problems of all.

Further still, it's also worth noting that the troika of anti-theistic clowns referred to earlier, directly upthread, not infrequently deploy this same type of piety and egoism. I've seen all thee of them Dennett, Dawkins and Harris, deploy this same type of piety, and not at all infrequently either.
12.19.2006 3:32pm
Michael B (mail):
mondo dentro,

Your retort/rebuke about "nonsense" is itself boorishly nonsensical, as are your massive historical conflations (e.g., Fascism and Marxism as simply being coextensive with the West's classical liberalism, also Jacoby's specific reference to Judeo-Christian principles/values with religion in general).

Your absolutist construals and conflations reflect your reactionary, irrational impulses; they don't reflect any type of well proportioned historical assessment.
12.19.2006 3:56pm
onclepsycho (mail):
What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong,but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: "Thou shalt not murder...."
But wait, this isn't a "fallacy" at all! At best, this is a delusion. Let's hope that believers who hold such an idiotic view never become atheists...
12.19.2006 4:32pm
Michael B (mail):
And btw mondo, if you're going to forward such stupefyingly massive conflations, for example conflating Fascism/Marxism with the West's classical liberal genesis (in both Judeo-Christian and Classical principles/values) and maturation, then also remember to take note of the actual linkage of jihadist anti-Semitism with Hitler's virulent strain, via the Mufti of Jerusalem Amin el-Husseini. V. National Socialism and Anti-Semitism in the Arab World, excerpt:

"Anti-Semitism based on the notion of a Jewish world conspiracy is not rooted in Islamic tradition but, rather, in European ideological models. The decisive transfer of this ideology to the Muslim world took place between 1937 and 1945 under the impact of Nazi propaganda. Important to this process were the Arabic-language service broadcast by the German shortwave transmitter in Zeesen between 1939 and 1945, and the role of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who was the first to translate European anti-Semitism into an Islamic context. Although Islamism is an independent, anti-Semitic, antimodern mass movement, its main early promoters -- the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Mufti and the Qassamites in Palestine -- were supported financially and ideologically by agencies of the German National Socialist government."

So, using the same types of historical conflations as you're presuming to use, we may as well conflate jihadist/salafist anti-Semitism and general interests as well. Everything equals everything else - such is, virtually, the nature of your highly simplistic conflations.

And yet - mirabile dictu! - you'd no doubt simply dismiss the two historic anti-theistic/totalitarian ideological movements of the 20th century - Fascism and Marxism - as having anything to do with you own atheistic or anti-theistic set of assumptions.

And this too is why Jacoby's societal focus in so germane to the discussion.
12.19.2006 4:35pm
mondo dentro (mail):
Michael B,

I don't know you, of course, but I suspect that being called "boorish" by the likes of you might well be a great compliment.

My claim of "nonsense" referred to the logical structure of your comment. The "conflations" (as you erroneously call them) are meant to illustrate that, if western liberalism is the fruit of the Judeo-Christian tradition, why not other western ideologies of which you do not approve? You can't just claim the good children and disown the bad ones.

You attempt to weasel-word it by saying that liberalism is "broadly founded" on your favorite tradition, but then, why not Marxism? Why is that too "broad", but your statement is not?

Further, many critics of Enlightenment values and philosophical liberalism--which is inherently secular in its outlook, something which you seem to not want to face--do indeed conflate Nazism, Fascism, and Marxism/Communism as being the inevitable fruit of Enlightenment secularism (see any of various pronouncements of Ratzinger, for example).

But, while many absolutism promoters have conflated these things, I was doing no such thing. Being a child of the Enlightenment myself, I am system, process, and pattern oriented: I am suggesting that all western intellectual movements are more closely related in an evolutionary sense than attempts to associate your favorite religious tradition with the best of the western tradition would indicate. For example, fundamentalisms of all types (secular and non) can be thought of, at least in part, as reactions against Enlightenment values. This is hardly news to anyone, yet it fundamentally contradicts what appears to be your basic stance.
12.19.2006 5:39pm
Michael B (mail):
Here's your previous statement word for word:

"First of all, both Fascism and Marxism are firmly embedded in the intellectual and cultural history of the West, and hence part of the same 'experiment'."

Fascism and Marxism were radical departures from classical liberal themes, not "firmly embedded". In fact they are commonly referred to as radical movements, departures, etc.
12.19.2006 5:51pm
Michael B (mail):
Btw, my claim of nonsense referred to the illogical structure of, and the conflations reflected in, your own comment.

Too, I emphasized what I was contrasting Fascism and Marxism with: not an indiscriminate "West," but the West's classical liberal strains which were in fact founded upon Judeo-Christian and Classical values/principles (Locke, Montesquieu, et al.). Further, I didn't say they were religious institutions, to the contrary it is in fact secular institutions being discussed, not religious. Hence, far from "not wanting to face" this, I'm facing it front and center, while acknowledging the various strains which fed into these classical liberal institutions.
12.19.2006 6:06pm
mondo dentro (mail):
Michael, the fact that you are repeating my exact words merely is illustrating the difference between mimicry and understanding.

The fact that two things are embedded in the same process (in this case, cultural history) does not imply that they are "conflated". It does, however, suggest that they have complex interrelationships of cause and effect. I believe humans and chimps come from the same roots, biologically speaking. That is not the same as conflating monkeys and people.

Marxism is a product of the Enlightenment tradition. Surely you grasp that, do you not? It is actually quite close to liberalism in its materialist, secularist outlook. Many religious absolutists make this similarity much closer than I would--they indeed conflate the two.

So I ask again: why is liberalism "broadly founded" on your favorite religious tradition, but Marxism not? And who the hell are you to disagree with the Pope?
12.19.2006 6:15pm
Michael B (mail):
Ah yes, beginning with "nonsense" and now descending further still to "Who the hell are you ...?" and "surely you [snark, sneer, smarm] grasp ..."

Who are you? Mr. Predictable?

Firstly, I didn't, in an unqualified sense, simply indicate liberalism in it's more recent leftist mode, I specifically indicated classical liberalism.

Secondly, your implicit, restricted definition of "conflate" does not exhaust the viable usage or connotations. Conflate can simply suggest a bringing together, not exhaustively erase all distinctions.

But let's very briefly review Fascism/Marxism, essentially ideological twins, in terms of the historical lineage as evidenced in the 19th and 20th centuries.

These twin ideologies (yes, of Europe), coming to flower in the early part of the 20th century, originated out of common revolutionary/radical theorizing and praxis. Mussolini (the preeminent intellectual and ideological founder of fascism) and Lenin corresponded and did not separate until just prior to WWI. Nazism was: National Socialism. Likewise, Mussolini was a committed Marxist throughout the first decade and more or the 20th century.
12.19.2006 6:38pm
Michael B (mail):
Additional reasons why Fascism/Marxism can be considered as ideological twins:

1) They both subordinated the individual to the state and the collective. Indeed the individual qua individual was brutalized, oppressed and systematically denigrated/despised.

2) They both raised the state and the personalities (via cults of personality) who directed the state to the top of all hierarchies, virtually (both de facto and de jure) functioning as quasi-religious entities.

3) They both suppressed and variously hated Christianity and Judaism and other religious traditions as well.

4) Neither of these twin ideological/political movements were in the tradition of the original Left (cf. the French Revolution) in that neither were informed by traditionalist interests (again, they were decidedly radical, nor by royalist or aristocratic interests, nor by clerical/religious influences.

5) Neither was fundamentally or instrumentally democratic or humane/tolerant - much to the contrary.

Many other similarities could be noted, e.g., the cultures of systematized death, for example the Gulags and the concentration camps.

Hence again, literally all of this reflects the decided and near-absolute radical departure from classical liberal forms.
12.19.2006 6:54pm
Michael B (mail):
oops, correction to (4) above:

4) Neither of these twin ideological/political movements (Fascism/Marxism) were in any sense in the tradition of European center/right conservatism or interests in that neither were informed by traditionalist, and certainly not by royalist or aristocratic interests, nor by clerical/religious influences. Hence again emphasizing their decided radical departures, not incremental or organic outgrowths. By contrast, classical liberal (again, Locke, Montesquieu, et al.) forms were decidedly more organic outgrowths of traditional European forms, e.g., continuing in a far greater respect for the individual qua individual, property rights as basic, etc.

So yes, Marxism was undeniably an outgrowth of the Enlightenment's more radical strains, but people like Locke, at the end of the 17th century and a social/political progenitor of Enlightenment thought, and Montesquieu, more central to the Enlightenment per se, were mediating - while still forward thinking - influences when compared to the Terror that occurred during the French Revolution or the Red Terror spawned by Marx's own radical variant or the terror of Hitler's reign.
12.19.2006 7:55pm