Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Another atheist out of his depth?

CAER
Ought God to tell the truth?

THE BISHOP OF DURHAM
'We are never, repeat never, in a position where we can size up God and decide what such a being ought really to do.'

CARR
Well, that's me smacked down by NT Wright

My amateur atheist attempts at theology brutally refuted by Christian scholars.

Never again will I repeat the childish statement 'God ought to tell the truth'.

55 Comments:

Blogger stephen said...

yeah well .. if there is a God and He/She is omnipotent omnipresent omniscient etc etc etc

then it would be kinda out of order for us to put an ought onto that being as we are the created

sort of like Homer Simpson saying that his creator should have given him 5 fingers..

that being said i beleive that God does always tell the truth not because he 'ought' as though there were some standard outside himself that he is beholden to... but because it is his very nature that He will not violate

10:49 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

God can kill people, but he cannot lie?

Who said God cannot lie?

The answer from theists is - God said he cannot lie, and he was under no compulsion to tell the truth when he said that.

11:19 PM  
Blogger stephen said...

well no thats not my answer.. i cant speak for other theists though... people can hold to the truth for less that stellar reasons

there are stupid christians

there are stupid athiests

God of course can take someones life as such as he is the creator and this does not violate any moral law obliging on himself..

God is not more bound to follow all the precepts he imposes on his creatures any more than a human father is bound to follow all the rules he has made for his little kids.

If I tell my two-year old not to play with matches, does that mean that I can’t use matches? If I tell my two-year old not to cross the street all by himself, does that mean that I can’t cross the street all by myself?

11:48 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

God created life so he can destroy it.

God created the truth, so he cannot lie.

God doesn't have to obey moral laws.

God can't lie.

Theology is all made up, isn't it?

1:20 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

If God says we can't rape two-year old children, does that mean God cannot rape two-year old children?

1:22 AM  
Blogger stephen said...

"God created life so he can destroy it."

No i don't think he did. But ifhe wanted to i think he would have the authority to do so.

"God created the truth, so he cannot lie."

You really dont have a good understanding of Christian theology do you... truth is not created

"God doesn't have to obey moral laws."

This is my house.. i built it.. you are not allowed to alter or damage it, if you do i will have the police charge you with malicious damage.

This is my house.. i built it..
i am allowed to alter it or even destroy it if i am not satisfied and start again.

"God can't lie."

nor can he do something immoral.
he is bound only by his own nature.

before you start on the obvious question that is begged.. there are things that are immoral for man that are not immoral for God (see above)

"Theology is all made up, isn't it?"

No. it is inferred.

1:20 AM


Steven Carr said...
"If God says we can't rape two-year old children, does that mean God cannot rape two-year old children? "

wow.. is this supposed to be some sort of conundrum to confound those stupid ignorant theists??

I don't believe that God is necessarily bound by certain moral prescriptions that he gives his creation. and some just involve categorical errors like your statement.

i think that God would be violating his very nature (which he can't do) by raping anyone.. therefore he can't rape a child.

his inherrent goodness precludes such an action.. we however are able to commit such acts, but as God (as far as Judeo-Christianity is concerned) wants us to do what is right (ie act in accordance with his will and purpose for which he has created us) certain acts, although possible are not morally right.

4:25 PM  
Blogger stephen said...

btw i believe that bishop NT Wright is not an inerrancy man steve

7:39 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Why does God's inherent goodness prevent him passing by on the other side while a child burns to death in a house fire?

Why can God allow children to be tortured, but he cannot lie?

'God of course can take someones life as such as he is the creator and this does not violate any moral law obliging on himself.'

God can kill people, but he cannot lie to them?

12:33 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

"Why does God's inherent goodness prevent him passing by on the other side while a child burns to death in a house fire? Why can God allow children to be tortured, but he cannot lie?"

Are you saying that there are morals that should be universally applied?

6:09 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

If you want good things for humanity, then you have to do things which produce good things for humanity.

The Bishop of Durham simply denies that God ought to be good.

10:31 PM  
Blogger abtruth said...

Are you saying that there are morals that should be universally applied?

Does the Bishop imply that God is not good or that there is no moral "ought" outside of himself that he is beholden to but that our morals are an outworking so to speak of Gods nature...

every heard of Euthyphros Dilemma?

you should get up to speed with your Platonic dialogues before going to far down this path Steve..

either way .. the answers we become convinced of are regarding the nature of God and have nothing to do with whether he exists or not...

5:50 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

There is no evidence of a God who passes by on the other side when disaster threatens humanity.

The Bishop of Durham claims this is because we would expect to see nothing happening, because that is God not doing anything.

10:18 PM  
Blogger abtruth said...

are you suggesting that if God did exist that he would be doing something morally wrong in looking the other way at disaster?

10:52 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

I don't know about steven, but I have no problem asserting that.

I suppose you think we, as atheists, can't legitimately be moral realists (while theists can).

If so, you are mistaken.

12:11 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


God of course can take someones life as such as he is the creator and this does not violate any moral law obliging on himself..


Why do you think that a person who creates a life has no moral obligations to it? I should think the reverse would be the case---if you bring a life into being you are directly responsible for its welfare.

12:13 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

"I don't know about steven, but I have no problem asserting that.
I suppose you think we, as atheists, can't legitimately be moral realists (while theists can).
If so, you are mistaken. "

so there are universal moral laws that should be intuitively known and adherred by every person and culture throughout all history???


David B. Ellis said...

"God of course can take someones life as such as he is the creator and this does not violate any moral law obliging on himself..
Why do you think that a person who creates a life has no moral obligations to it? I should think the reverse would be the case---if you bring a life into being you are directly responsible for its welfare. "


Why do you think God is a person. If a creator is really a creator then he/she is of a different order to the created.

I think you may be making a catagorical mistake. Humans for instance, (this is an example only so don't read into it more than necessary) do not create human beings... they 'beget' human beings. humans 'create'statues - things that look like themselves but are not of the same moral order.

12:28 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Jesus was not a person?

Ought God to tell the truth?

1:24 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

Jesus was not a person?

Ought God to tell the truth?


really Steve .. your objection is bordering on equivocation

The idea goes tha Jesus was God manifest as a human...

but it was not Jesus *as a man* that created but Jesus as part of the trinity that created before being manifested in human form...

9:34 PM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

Abtruth says it is a category error to think that a god can be a person.

The he claims that Jesus was god made into a person.

The more Christians explain Christianity, the more I realise that what comes out of their mouths is meaningless babble.

10:18 PM  
Blogger abtruth said...

"Abtruth says it is a category error to think that a god can be a person.

The he claims that Jesus was god made into a person."

ahh no steve... God is not a person as we would commonly define a person or human, but has manifested himself as one for a time and purpose... it is like an author writing himself into his own novel, just because he is writing himself into the novel does not mean that he is limited to the confines of the pages as another character may be.

The more Christians explain Christianity, the more I realise that what comes out of their mouths is meaningless babble.

well maybe to you.. this topic (ie Jesus as both God and Man) is relatively high end theology and has NOTHING whatsoever to do with wether God actually exists or not.. which you have not given me any reasonable argument for his non-existence...


lets cover the basics first eh?

1:51 AM  
Blogger Steven Carr said...

More gibberish.

God is not a person - he is like an author.

How can God exist, when Christian concepts of God are self-contradictory garbage?

2:52 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

More gibberish.

God is not a person - he is like an author.

How can God exist, when Christian concepts of God are self-contradictory garbage?

i am sorry that the basic concept of a metaphor is lost on you.. but really is this the way you conduct a debate, when things get a little difficult for you to logically argue against you go for an ad homenim attack?

putting something up as a metaphor is not self contradictory and furthermore look at your statement....

How can God exist, when Christian concepts of God are self-contradictory garbage?

surely basic logic would show that even IF Christian concepts of God were self contradictory, arbitary and plain wrong, that this has NOTHING whatsoever to do with whether He/She actually does or does not exist

try again Stevo, you are yet to give me ONE logical argument against God that is even slightly plausible on the first read... you had a go ages ago which was just a joke... come on Steve... have at me with your superior logic

6:26 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

I don't have to go into tons of details to try to convince you that there is one God. It seems to me that you are not about to change your mind about Christianity nor atheism. But it would seem to me that the fact that we are all sitting at our computers disputing the existence of a "God" proves His existence.

that is all.

7:45 PM  
Blogger abtruth said...

But it would seem to me that the fact that we are all sitting at our computers disputing the existence of a "God" proves His existence.


How so?

10:27 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


so there are universal moral laws that should be intuitively known and adherred by every person and culture throughout all history???


In saying I am a moral realist I am claiming only that I think there are moral truths.

I made no claim that all people would intuitively know and recognize moral truth (much less adhere to it). Nor even that I am correct in all my own views as to what is right---I am, after all, not an "ideal observer".

If you are acquainted with meta-ethics you should be able to guess based on that last sentence the primary influence on my own meta-ethical views.

12:25 PM  
Blogger abtruth said...

I am aware of but have no real insight into richard brandt if that is to whom you are referring

Christians would pose God as the ideal observer who has chosen to reveal certain things about himself and how he would have us conduct ourselves in a variety of ways.. non the least through the Bible but also through our own conscience that would tell us of rights and wrongs that would be prescriptive to all humanity through all history and cultures.

i would propose that ascribing blame to anyone/culture for immorality ultimatley becomes logically impossible if this were not so.. and morality ultimately becomes a powerplay of personal preference.

11:20 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


i would propose that ascribing blame to anyone/culture for immorality ultimatley becomes logically impossible if this were not so.. and morality ultimately becomes a powerplay of personal preference.


I'm sure you would.

Would you care to present an actual argument to that effect? I've often heard christians claim there can be no moral truths if there is no God but I've yet to run across an argument to that effect that makes any sense.

As to ideal observer theory, a very quick summary of its central idea is:

The main idea [of the ideal observer theory] is that ethical terms should be defined after the pattern of the following example: "x is better than y" means "If anyone were, in respect of x and y, fully informed and vividly imaginative, impartial, in a calm frame of mind and otherwise normal, he would prefer x to y."

Personally, I would state it slightly differently but that quote from Brandt gives the basic idea (that certains experiences, ways of experiencing and states of affairs are intrinsically better than others---because of their own intrinsic qualities and not because of some external authority).

Your own theory, claiming that there would be no moral truths if there was no God, logically entails that such things as love and empathy have no value in and of themselves.

Even to a less than ideal observer like myself this seems sufficiently self-evidently false.

8:01 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

Your own theory, claiming that there would be no moral truths if there was no God, logically entails that such things as love and empathy have no value in and of themselves.

yes i think i would agree with that

although not being a Neitzche expert i would say he would agree with me as well??

Have you read the first four chapters of Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. There may be better but this is an excellent example of the moral argument

7:46 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


Me:

Your own theory, claiming that there would be no moral truths if there was no God, logically entails that such things as love and empathy have no value in and of themselves.

Abtruth's response:

yes i think i would agree with that


That pretty well speaks for itself.



although not being a Neitzche expert i would say he would agree with me as well??


So what? Nietszche is as capable of being mistaken as anyone else (and frequently was). Though he was occasionally insightful he was more often just full of crap.



Have you read the first four chapters of Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. There may be better but this is an excellent example of the moral argument


Yes, I've read it. An incredibly weak presentation of the argument. He simply assumes in his discussion of the topic, without argument to that effect, the central disputed point---that moral realism requires the existence of God. If memory serves, I don't even think he addressed the euthyphro dilemma.

Hardly impressive.

9:30 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

Feel free to post a quote of where, in MERE CHRISTIANITY, you think Lewis successfully argues that moral realism cannot be true if there is no God.

I think you'll find, if you read it more closely, that he simply glosses over this, the most central issue of the topic. The issue which, if you don't address, you have no argument to speak of.

But, hey, its been a couple of years since I read it. Maybe he presented a killer argument to that effect and I've just forgotten it. If so, I'd be glad to hear it.

9:46 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

Man ya just have to read closely don't you..

Sorry David .. you said

Your own theory, claiming that there would be no moral truths if there was no God, logically entails that such things as love and empathy have no value in and of themselves.

i would say that love and empathy have no value in and of themselves if there was no God..

this was what i intended

as Dostoyevsky said.. "if God is dead then everything is permissible"

so if there is no God then there are no such things as 'moral oughts'to subscribe certain behaviours, just moral preferences.

a moral ought indicates somthing above me that i am under some obligation to .. if there is nothing above me and morality is up to me then my preference reigns

as to Neitzche i was merely pointing out that there are many on the atheist side (of high standing and respect) that would agree with my summation of reality sans God. Peter Singer for instance

Lewis did not go into Euthyphros dillema, nor do i think he need to. that is an arguement around the nature of whether God is beholden to any moral standard and has nothing to do with whether He/She actually exists

12:38 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


Man ya just have to read closely don't you..

Sorry David .. you said

Your own theory, claiming that there would be no moral truths if there was no God, logically entails that such things as love and empathy have no value in and of themselves.

i would say that love and empathy have no value in and of themselves if there was no God..


Yes, that's exactly what I took you to mean .


so if there is no God then there are no such things as 'moral oughts'to subscribe certain behaviours, just moral preferences.


You've still presented to argument to that effect. Nor have you addressed the most powerful objection to that argument---the euthyphro dilemma.

It seems clear to me (though I'm open to being convinced I'm mistaken) that being filled with love is intrinsically better than being filled with hate---and that living in a society of such persons is intrinsically better than the alternative.

That being the case it only makes sense to say one "ought" to be the one rather than the other.


a moral ought indicates somthing above me that i am under some obligation to .. if there is nothing above me and morality is up to me then my preference reigns


There is more than one way to get to an "ought". You are assuming only one possible way---that an authority figure hand one a set of rules---and that simply isnt the case.



Lewis did not go into Euthyphros dillema, nor do i think he need to. that is an arguement around the nature of whether God is beholden to any moral standard and has nothing to do with whether He/She actually exists


It does that. But it does more than that. It refers to whether moral realism is dependent for its being true on God or whether its true independently of any property of his (his commands, his character....and even his existence).

And if moral realism is not dependent on God (as, I think, the euthyphro dilemma clearly demonstrates) then the moral argument fails.

You really can't escape having to address the euthyphro dilemma if you want to successfully advance the moral argument for the existence of God.

6:56 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

typo:

"You've presented to argument to that effect" should read "you've presented NO argument to that effect."

6:58 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


i would say that love and empathy have no value in and of themselves if there was no God..


If they have value in and of themselves (inherent in the nature of their own properties alone) then they have value regardless of whether God exists.

One cannot coherently claim they only have value in and of themselves if there is a God---because that places the necessary source of their value on something outside to their own properties (which is exactly what the phrase "in and of themselves" excludes).

7:05 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

To put more explicitly why the euthyphro dilemma is directly pertinent to the moral argument:


The moral argument for God's existence states, in its barest form:

1. Moral realism cannot be true if there is no God.

2. Moral realism is true.

3. Therefore, there is a God.

But if euthyphro dilemma is valid then one of the two following options must be true.

Option 1. Moral realism is true but not dependent on God.

or,

Option 2. Moral realism is not true.


If option 1 is true then premise 1 of the moral argument is false and the argument fails.

If option 2 is true then premise 2 of the moral argument is false and the argument fails.

This being the case, for the moral argument to stand, the euthyphro dilemma must be successfully refuted.

7:25 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

now i am not an expert on plato either and i don't want to be seen as brushing your argument aside but the fact that it is a dillemma means that the idea of God being the author of goodness or a standard that he is subject to has not been decided..???

i would pose (of course) that goodness is not something that God is subject to, nor is it his arbitary whim, but rather part of his very nature... the may seem arbitary but the opposite would be just as arbitary

if euthyphros dilemma has been decided on the basis that you propose i see no real holes in your logic... i must say that is (finally!) one of the only decent attempts to foil the moral argument and shows excellent reasoning should all premises be correct.

7:40 PM  
Blogger abtruth said...

I think we should get "Cheryl" back in for a few more words of wisdom

7:42 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


i would pose (of course) that goodness is not something that God is subject to, nor is it his arbitary whim, but rather part of his very nature...


Yes, I am aware of the effort to sidestep the euthyphro dilemma by basing morality on God's nature rather than his commands.

However, this does nothing to solve the problem. The dilemma is just as applicable in a slightly modified form.

In other words:

If moral truths are determined by Gods nature then it follows that if God's nature had been sadistic rather than benevolent then being sadistic would be morally right.

Or, to show how arbitrary this makes morality in a slightly different way:

Christians say that God's nature is benevolent (that he is caring and loving).

However, if they are, in fact, mistaken about God's nature and he is cruel and delights in pointless suffering then it follows, that exactly these characteristics are morally good.

Or, to look at it another way (and drawing on a little more technical philosophical ideas),

The idea of an omnipotent omniscient being who created the universe (God) but which is of a sadistic nature is logically possible.

If morality is based on God's nature then, within what Wittgenstein called "logical space", that is, the set of all logically possible universes, there are "universes" where benevolence is morally right and others where it is the grossest sadism which is morally right.

However, this makes morality both non-absolute (it varies from one logically possible universe to another) and, ultimately, arbitrary.


the may seem arbitary but the opposite would be just as arbitary


I don't know what the "opposite" of your meta-ethical system would be. I don't think there IS an opposite of Divine Character Theory (as I would name your theory---to distinguish it from Divine Command Theory---to which it is similar).

However, my meta-ethical theory (Intrinsic Goods Theory, as I would name it) does NOT yield arbitrary results. If you base the value of love on the intrinsic qualities of love itself then, if the theory is correct, there is no logically possible circumstance where sadism would be morally good---as is the case with your own theory.

Of course, you are free to attempt to show me to be mistaken in this assertion by constructing a dilemma where my theory can legitimize EITHER kindness or cruelty as morally good like the euthyphro dilemma does for yours.

I don't think its possible but feel free to try.

7:32 PM  
Blogger abtruth said...

David

although i disagree on a fundamental issue, i would like to say that that was just a pleasure to read.

i believe on first read that you have no logical problems with your argument, which makes it a good read as so many arguments against the existence of God (or arguments about anything at all really) have such glaring holes that they become tiring and annoying.

i believe your argument centres around a couple of premises that if you have defined them correctly your argument will hold. However, i think your argument has a few problems here.

you say
The idea of an omnipotent omniscient being who created the universe (God) but which is of a sadistic nature is logically possible.

i don't want to sound as though i am contradicting you arbitrarily but.. i am not sure that that omnipotent onmiscient being is logically possible.

i am just typing as i think here (you made me think!)but when we talk of something that is morally good we are appealing to a standard of perfection, as CS Lewis would say 'the way we know that a line is crooked is that we have an idea of what a straight line is'

i believe that good is a standard to which 'bad'is compared, but 'bad'is not the opposite of 'good' but a corruption of the good. This sort of reasoning is used by us all the time, often to justify ourselves (i am not as bad as so and so)

so prescribing a sadistic nature to God would not be giving him an alternate or opposite nature but would be a corruption of the ultimate standard of an innate quality we would expect God to have.

another way of describing this would be .. there are behaviours that are possible in certain moral catagories, ie love hate like loath .. but in each of these catagories there is one to which the rest are related to in the degree of corruption from same.

so i would pose that logically if God exists He/She embodies all the moral attributes to the maximal degree with out corruption. therefore posing God as 'possibly sadistic'would be posing a God with a moral corruption, not a moral alternative in His/Her nature..

this would also contradict Wittgensteins alternate universes idea.

having gone through this thought exercise i think it is necessary for me to retract my statement of 'arbitrariness'(sp?)in my previous post. i know think this is not the case but it is necessary as part of the definition of being God..



not wanting to cop out here (the contrary in fact) but if i am ultimatley wrong you have only disproved one of the arguments to the existence of God. Are you as competently informed on the other arguments? (not wanting to start into this now of course but i hope you are!)

8:37 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


so prescribing a sadistic nature to God would not be giving him an alternate or opposite nature but would be a corruption of the ultimate standard of an innate quality we would expect God to have.

another way of describing this would be .. there are behaviours that are possible in certain moral catagories, ie love hate like loath .. but in each of these catagories there is one to which the rest are related to in the degree of corruption from same.

so i would pose that logically if God exists He/She embodies all the moral attributes to the maximal degree with out corruption. therefore posing God as 'possibly sadistic'would be posing a God with a moral corruption, not a moral alternative in His/Her nature..



These comments, of course, concede the validity of the euthyphro dilemma. After all, if the standard of moral goodness is God's character as you claimed earlier then if God's character were sadistic that would, by definition, NOT be morally corrupt but, instead, the epitome of moral perfection.


not wanting to cop out here (the contrary in fact) but if i am ultimatley wrong you have only disproved one of the arguments to the existence of God.



To show that an argument is invalid is, of course, not the same as showing that the conclusion that the argument was attempting to establish is false. I wouldn't claim that what I've said disproves Gods existence. That would be an elementary blunder in reasoning.

My primary concern was to show that atheists have just as much reason to accept moral realism as any theist does.


Are you as competently informed on the other arguments?


I like to think so. I doubt that there's a major argument for theism I haven't spent a great deal of time examining.

If I might ask, whats your favorite?

Mine would have to be the argument from miracles.

Let us see faith-healers going around laying hands on amputees and their missing limbs regrowing in moments and you'll find my skepticism disappearing pretty fast (just to name one example of empirical evidence for the supernatural I would find compelling).

9:11 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

Unfortunately though, I have yet to see any such compelling evidence of a miraculous event

9:14 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

LOL
not going near the argument from miracles.

i have been really crook this week and havent eaten for 4 days...

a couple of questions for you..

if the Euthyphros dilemma holds and moral standards do exist separate from God.. what makes them into moral oughts as opposed to optionals

i am glad that i said that i was no plato expert.. you have set me thinking

what are the implications if morals are a standard to which God had the maximal ability to fulfill by his/her own will?

3:44 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


what makes them into moral oughts as opposed to optionals


Moral oughts ARE optionals....in the sense that anyone can opt to ignore or fail to recognize better ways to live and choose to do something else.


As to what makes something a moral ought, though I've already said this:

I use the word "ought" not in the sense of an externally imposed command or compulsion but, rather, in the sense that some ways of being (for example being loving and empathetic rather than mean-spirited) are intrinsically better than others---and, therefore, of course, one "ought" to choose the one rather than the other.


what are the implications if morals are a standard to which God had the maximal ability to fulfill by his/her own will?


Your question is open to quite a few interpretations so I'm not really sure what it is you're asking. I could answer it in quite a few different ways that might turn out to have nothing to do with what you meant so, instead, I'll just ask you to clarify what it is you mean.

7:26 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

yeah that last post of mine was a bit of a dogs breakfast

i think i was more interested in, do you think that morals are absolute in their compulsion (irrespective of our ability to disobey them) in that say [insert moral ought here] should be prescriptive for all humans through all history and all cultures and would be committing a moral wrong to do otherwise?

7:41 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

I'm not a moral relativist. The fact that most people in ancient times didn't recognize, for example, that slavery is a moral wrong makes it no less a wrong---then as much as now.

11:09 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

The same, of course, goes for us as well. Human cultures have gradually grown in moral insight (and hopefully will continue to)---I suspect that our descendents, as just one example, will be rightly horrified by our culture's general indifference to the suffering of animals.

11:14 PM  
Blogger abtruth said...

I agree of course but am not as optomistic as yourself re the future of moral progression.

getting back to my previous post i was posing the question ..

if morals are absolute but as moral animals we are free to disobey them [ie murder, slavery, genocide] and will continue to do so ... what is the 'thing' that would compel us to do the right thing when it is expedient to do otherwise?

where does this obligation come from?

7:59 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


what is the 'thing' that would compel us to do the right thing when it is expedient to do otherwise?

where does this obligation come from?



There is nothing to "compel" or externally "obligate" us to do right---we have to be sufficiently morally insightful to value it more than the expedient.

Thats the way its always been and always will be.

9:16 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

There is nothing to "compel" or externally "obligate" us to do right---we have to be sufficiently morally insightful to value it more than the expedient.

Thats the way its always been and always will be.


if there is nothing to compell us to do the right thing, are we not left in a situation of might making right..

or in other words, why should i do the right thing other than the expediant thing if that suits me better?

what should i fear if i have to give no account for the way i live my life?

to use an extreme example (and the most obvious one) blaming Hitler for his atrocities would be useless as he could respond

'i know it was wrong but i chose to do it for my own reasons, who cares? i mean its not as though i am beholden to obey moral laws, they are entirely optional and i opted not to..'

7:47 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


if there is nothing to compell us to do the right thing, are we not left in a situation of might making right..


In a word.

No.

Why would you draw the conclusion that, if there is no external force compelling us to do whats right, that what is right is determined by who is most powerful?

The one simply doesnt follow from the other.


or in other words, why should i do the right thing other than the expediant thing if that suits me better?


I've already discussed why one OUGHT to act with concern for others---I see little reason to repeat myself on that topic.

If one is too selfish and morally ignorant to value anyone's well-being but their own they will, of course, NOT act morally. Again, that's a truism. And has no bearing on the question of what is or isnt right.


to use an extreme example (and the most obvious one) blaming Hitler for his atrocities would be useless as he could respond

'i know it was wrong but i chose to do it for my own reasons, who cares? i mean its not as though i am beholden to obey moral laws, they are entirely optional and i opted not to..'


So, to your mind the right is of no value if no one is powerful enough to force it on others?

I'm afraid I don't share that view.

I think what you are bringing up has gone far afield from the realm of ethics or meta-ethics and is simply a confession that you find the idea that there is no power (God, or whatever else) capable of enforcing the right frightening.

Well, that's life. It doesn't come with a guarantee that everything will work out to the best in the end---which is all the more reason for us to act with the well-being of our world in mind---if we mess it up no one is going to swoop in and save us from ourselves.

9:06 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

Yes i think i understand what you are saying in that you believe that these moral laws or standards are just there and we can opt out with no real consequences ala giving an account for oneself to a higher authority..

but this seems to go against my most primal intuition of obligation to do the right thing and the guilt i feel when i have done the wrong thing.

i am happy to leave it here if you wish.. (i detect a slight annoyance in your tone.. sorry) but speaking with you has been great

10:50 PM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...


Yes i think i understand what you are saying in that you believe that these moral laws or standards are just there and we can opt out with no real consequences ala giving an account for oneself to a higher authority..


There is a real consequence to not being a loving person---being condemned to the fate of lacking a loving character.

The fact that a, for example, sociopath, may lack the imagination to recognize how impoverished a life that really is doesn't make it any the less a terrible fate.


but this seems to go against my most primal intuition of obligation to do the right thing and the guilt i feel when i have done the wrong thing.


You intuit that someone bigger than you will punish you if you do what you feel to be wrong?

Of course you do, this has been the experience of every human being throughout history from earliest childhood---its called having parents.

But if we project our childhood experiences onto reality itself we shouldn't be surprised when they fail to correspond.

Intuitions, after all, have a poor track record in being predictors of the way the world actually is.

7:14 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

There is no better representation of what I mean by a life without compassion and empathy being an empoverished one no matter what wealth or power one has than Mark Twain's short story THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER.

It can be read as an etext from Project Gutenburg:

http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3186

9:23 AM  
Blogger abtruth said...

so you are saying that my sense of guilt comes from my parents

10:15 PM  
Blogger abtruth said...

david

you have given me much food for thought and i have done a little research on euthyphros dilemma and have found this resource that i think explains what i should have known previous to going as far into the debate with you so unprepared.. i would appreciate your comments

Euthyphro's Dilemma


Gregory Koukl

Plato's challenge concerning the nature of goodness is still being heard today: Is an act right because God says it's so, or does God say it's so because it's right?

divider

Plato's famous dilemma concerning the nature of goodness is still being raised today as a serious challenge to Christianity. Is an act right because God says it's so, or does God say it's so because it's right? The question first surfaces in Plato's dialog Euthyphro.[1]

The Challenge

In Plato's dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro[2], Socrates is attempting to understand the essence of piety and holiness:

Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro? Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euthyphro: Certainly.

Socrates: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

Euthyphro: No, that is the reason.

Socrates: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?

The dilemma Euthyphro faced is this: Is a thing good simply because the gods say it is? Or do the gods say a thing is good because of some other quality it has? If so, what is that quality? The problem stumped Euthyphro.

In more recent times, Plato's approach has been used as an assault on the coherence of Christianity. 20th century British philosopher and atheist, Bertrand Russell, formulated the problem this way in his polemic against the faith, Why I Am Not a Christian:

If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: Is that difference due to God's fiat or is it not? If it is due to God's fiat, then for God Himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God's fiat, because God's fiats are good and not good independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.[3]

The Problem

Russell's version is an attempt to show an internal flaw in the Christian's notion of God and goodness. Is a thing right simply because God declares it so, or does God say it is good because He recognizes a moral code superior even to Him?

This problem presents a dilemma because one is forced to choose between two options, both ultimately hostile to Christian theism. The believer is caught between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, God reigns and His Law is supreme. As the ultimate Sovereign, He establishes the moral rules of the universe. His commands are absolute. We must obey.

Ethicist Scott Rae describes the view: "A divine command theory of ethics is one in which the ultimate foundation for morality is the revealed will of God, or the commands of God found in Scripture."[4] This view is known as ethical voluntarism.

At first blush this seems correct, until we realize the liabilities. The content of morality would be arbitrary, dependent on God's whim. Though God has declared murder, theft, and debauchery wrong, it could have been otherwise had God willed it so. Any "immoral" act could suddenly become "moral" by simple fiat.

Further, it reduces God's goodness to His power. To say that God is good simply means that He is capable of enforcing His commands. As Russell put it, "For God Himself there is no difference between right and wrong."

This is the position of Islam,[5] but it is unacceptable to the Christian. Morality is not arbitrary. God is not free to call what is wrong right, and what is right wrong. The text is clear: "It is impossible for God to lie" (Hebrews 6:18). God cannot sin.

But the alternative seems no better. If the Christian asserts that morality is not arbitrary, he is caught on the second horn of the dilemma. If the standard itself is absolute such that not even God can violate it, doesn't this make the Almighty Himself beholden to a higher law? The Sovereign becomes the subordinate.

In each case, Christianity loses. Either God is not good, or He's not sovereign. That's the dilemma.

Grounding

Plato's challenge forces us to consider an important detail in any discussion on the nature of morality: grounding.

The word "ground" originally meant "the lowest part, base, or bottom of anything."[6]

In philosophy it refers to the foundation or logical basis of a claim. Euthyphro's task was to identify the logical grounding of piety or virtue. What base does morality "stand on"?

Frank Beckwith and I chose a title for our book on relativism that paints a word picture: Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air. Our point: Relativists who make any claim to knowledge have no basis for their assertion. They are standing not on solid ground, but on thin air.

A law is only as legitimate as the authority upon which it rests. The U.S. government can't pass laws governing Canadians. Our federal laws apply only to the people of this country. Individuals can't make up laws that apply to their neighbors. They don't have that authority.

The founders of our country argued that even governments are subject to a higher law. Certain truths are transcendent, they argued, grounded not in human institutions but in God Himself. This appeal to higher Law was their rational justification for the morality of the American Revolution.

The problem of grounding morality is a difficult one for atheists who claim one can have ethics without God. Certainly, an atheist can act in a manner some people consider "moral," but it's hard to know what the term ultimately refers to. It generally means to comply with an objective standard of good, a Law given by legitimate authority. However, without a transcendent Lawmaker (God), there can be no transcendent Law, and no corresponding obligation to be good.

Trappist monk Thomas Merton put the challenge this way:

In the name of whom or what do you ask me to behave? Why should I go to the inconvenience of denying myself the satisfactions I desire in the name of some standard that exists only in your imagination? Why should I worship the fictions that you have imposed on me in the name of nothing?[7]

As I wrote in Relativism, "a 'moral' atheist is like a man sitting down to dinner who doesn't believe in farmers, ranchers, fishermen, or cooks. He believes the food just appears, with no explanation and no sufficient cause."[8] The atheist's morality has no grounding.

Does the Christian fare any better, though? That is the challenge of Euthyphro's dilemma.

The Solution

The general strategy used to defeat a dilemma is to show that it's a false one. There are not two options, but three.

The Christian rejects the first option, that morality is an arbitrary function of God's power. And he rejects the second option, that God is responsible to a higher law. There is no Law over God.

The third option is that an objective standard exists (this avoids the first horn of the dilemma). However, the standard is not external to God, but internal (avoiding the second horn). Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness.

Could God simply decree that torturing babies was moral? "No," the Christian answers, "God would never do that." It's not a matter of command. It's a matter of character.

So the Christian answer avoids the dilemma entirely. Morality is not anterior to God--logically prior to Him--as Bertrand Russell suggests, but rooted in His nature. As Scott Rae puts it, "Morality is not grounded ultimately in God's commands, but in His character, which then expresses itself in His commands."[9] In other words, whatever a good God commands will always be good.

A Second Problem

The Christian's job is not done, though, because Bertrand Russell's observation suggests a second problem. Socrates' challenge to Euthyphro has not been met. What is "good"? It doesn't help to say that God is good unless we know what the term refers to.

If the word "good" means "in accord with the nature and character of God," we have a problem. When the Bible says "God is good," it simply means "God has the nature and character that God has." If God and goodness are the very same thing, then the statement "God is good" means nothing more than "God is God," a useless tautology.

The answer to this problem hinges on the philosophical notion of identity, expressed symbolically as A = A. When one thing is identical to another (in the way I'm using the term), there are not two things, but one.[10] For example, the president of Stand to Reason (Gregory Koukl) is identical to the author of this article. Everything that's true of the one is true of the other.[11] The author and the president are the same. They are not two, but one.

According to Christian teaching, God is not good in the same way that a bachelor is an unmarried male. When we say God is good, we are giving additional information, namely that God has a certain quality. God is not the very same thing as goodness (identical to it). It's an essential characteristic of God, so there is no tautology.[12]

Knowing Goodness

A proper understanding of Christian teaching on God removes one problem, yet we still face another: What is "good"? How can we know goodness if we don't define it first?

The way Abraham responded when he first learned of God's intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah gives us a clue to the answer:

Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:25)

Here's the question. How did Abraham know justice required that God not treat the wicked and the righteous alike? As of yet, no commandments had been handed down.

Abraham knew goodness not by prior definition or by some decree of God, but through moral intuition. He didn't need God to define justice (divine command). He knew it directly. His moral knowledge was built in.[13]

Even the atheist understands what moral terms mean. He doesn't need God in order to recognize morality. He needs God to make sense of what he recognizes.

This is precisely why the moral argument for God's existence is such a good one. The awareness of morality leads to God much as the awareness of falling apples leads to gravity. Our moral intuitions recognize the effect, but what is the adequate cause? If God does not exist, then moral terms are actually incoherent and our moral intuitions are nonsense.

Christians need not fear Plato on this score. When Euthyphro's dilemma is applied to Christianity, it mischaracterizes the Biblical view of God. Goodness is neither above God nor merely willed by Him. Instead, ethics are grounded in His holy character. Moral notions are not arbitrary and given to caprice. They are fixed and absolute, grounded in God's immutable nature.

Further, no outside definition of piety is necessary because morality is known directly through the faculty of moral intuition. God's laws express His character and--if our moral intuitions are intact--we immediately recognize those Laws as good.

This doesn't mean Christianity is true, only that it's is not handicapped by Plato's challenge to Euthyphro.
[1] There is some debate whether this word should be pronounced "u-THY-froh" or "U-thuh-froh."

[2] Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, translated by J. Harward, Robert Maynard Hutchins, ed., vol. 7 of Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), 195.

[3] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian (New York: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1957), 12.

[4] Scott Rae, Moral Choices--An Introduction to Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 31.

[5] Rae, 32.

[6] Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition.
[7] Quoted in Phillip Yancy, "The Other Great Commission," Christianity Today, October 7, 1996, 136.
[8] Frank Beckwith and Gregory Koukl, Relativism--Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 169.

[9] Rae, 32.

[10] The term "identical twins" is, strictly speaking, a misnomer. Twins aren't identical to each other. Each twin is identical to herself and only similar to the other.

[11] Philosophers know this as Leibnitz' law of the indiscernability of identicals.

[12] This distinguishes between the "is" of essential predication and the "is" of identity mentioned earlier. The word "is" can mean a couple of things.

[13] Something like this has to be the case. Regardless of how one grounds the concept of goodness, another could always ask, "But what makes that notion good?" To avoid a vicious regress, one must eventually appeal to some irreducible, primitive concept known by intuition.

2:21 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home