Sunday, September 14, 2008

Will objective morality please stand up?

A common argument against atheism states that the atheist worldview can't determine moral absolutes. The apologist, Ravi Zacharias, in this podcast, Why I am Not an Atheist, argues that if atheism is true, then there is no moral law in this universe (15:25); without a higher moral standard – a law above our laws – there can be no point of reference on which we can anchor our value system. The idea of an 'objective morality' or 'ultimate standard' for human behaviour, which is determined by a universal law giver, is a common idea amongst theists.

But I’m always left wondering: do Christians know for certain what this ultimate law actually is? Can Christians know what is truly wrong and truly right in God's eyes? I don’t think they can. If you are a Christian, take some time to write down what you think what kind of precepts constitute God's objective morality. What will your list look like, and what is its source?


What about the Bible?
Some Christians might point me to the Bible as their source of objective morality, but when I page through the Bible, I'm struck by the contradictory moral views that are contained within its pages.

For example, some Christians might write down 'Thou shall not kill' on their list as a universal moral precept, but then those Christians should condemn, in the strongest terms, the Israelite killings of thousands of men, woman and children in the Old Testament. Moreover, the Old Testament, which contains that very commandment, also contains a range of commands that impose the death penalty for various victimless crimes, such as working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15), blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), or believing in other gods (Deuteronomy 13:6-10).

Various biblical teachings also seem to run counter to moral precepts that many Christians adhere to; it seems to condone misogyny, genocide, and the belief that individuals can be punished for the sins of their forefathers. In other words, whatever moral precept you write down on your list as an ultimate moral law – let it be from the Bible or from your own moral sense – there is often another part of the Bible that will probably contradict it.

The changing face of Christian morality
Of course, you might argue that I'm misinterpreting certain parts of the Bible, or that I don't fully understand the context in which certain texts were written. But I would ask the question: which moral precepts from the Bible are relevant, and what standards do you use to determine this? The moral ambiguity inherent in the Bible has enabled many Christians, throughout history, to argue for almost any moral view. At one point many Christians thought slavery was okay, and they appealed to the Bible as their source. After all, there are various verses that seem to condone slavery (e.g., Titus 2:9-10 and 1 Timothy 6:1).

The fact is that Christians, over the centuries, have changed their moral outlook on many topics, ranging from birth control, abortion, divorce, woman's rights, religious freedom, racial tolerance, and even homosexuality. For every ultimate rule that you write on your list, somewhere in the world, or sometime in history, another Christian believes, or has believed, otherwise. And these Christians with different views have appealed to their own interpretation of biblical text as proof that they are right.

When it comes to determining what is right and wrong, it seems
that many Christians do not appeal to God's supposed objective moral code, but rather to their own, sometimes subjective, interpretations of biblical text. They pick the verses that support their view, and reinterpret or play down the importance of verses that don't ("well, that verse doesn't really mean what it says").

Basing God's moral code on our own
So what forms the basis of Christian objective morality? As we have seen, the Bible seems to contradict its own commandments, and even Christians can't agree with each other on what is actually right and wrong. Does God agree with homosexuality? Does he condone the use of condoms? Different Christians will give different answers. So I think Christians are overoptimistic when they claim to know the mind of God concerning such matters. I think that, if there is a God who holds onto some form of objective morality, we still know very little about what that morality is all about.

I wonder if this is a case where Christians are building an image of God based on their own values and beliefs. God doesn't inform humans of his perfect moral code. Rather, it seems that humans impose their own moral precepts on God.

26 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Good post.

I'm certainly a firm believer in subjective morality rather than objective 'absolute' morality. Our moral stance is largely determined by an accident of birth. If we had been born in a difference place, a different time or as a different gender our ideas of morality would be different too. You only have to have a limited grasp of history or the world we live in to know that.

Also not only do Christians view their morality as absolute but so do Muslims and people of other faiths - to say nothing of the variations *within* faiths that you've already alluded to. They can't all be right can they? How then can we determine which, if any, of them are on the correct path? Where do we need to stand to be outside or above all of this in order to see things objectively? Nowhere - because there *is* nowhere to stand....!

[Waits for comments that 'without God all is permitted'....]

Barbara(aka Layla) said...

Good post, I've thought about this alot. Also about what cyberkitten said about different faiths all having their own "absolute truth" etc.

Anonymous said...

"I wonder if this is a case where Christians are building an image of God based on their own values and beliefs. God doesn't inform humans of his perfect moral code. Rather, it seems that humans impose their own moral precepts on God."

Now stop using your common sense please .Only those who write these books on beliefs are allowed to do that .Which tribe do you belong to and what will be the name of your religion and new god ?.Or is it to late in time for you to do that,in being the present writer and by not wanting to lead people astray.Have you decided its best to let people know these thoughts come from no god but from within you ? .

Yes its quite obvious these thoughts said to be that of the many gods come from early man trying to understand life and put morals in place.

But that doesnt mean people of today cannot still learn from both triumphs and mistakes today ,and come up with new morals .After all its no differnt to the old and new testament of the christian bible .How could people soon not realise stoning people to death wasnt such a good idea .Neither is it such a good idea to hang or electricute people to death today ,some might be later found to be wrongly convicted .And then its just to late ,isnt it.Sound very moral to you ?

Laughing Boy said...

The Moral Argument states (more or less) that without a God who is personal, and, in a sense, has moral 'convictions', there is no absolute standard to which we can appeal regarding rightness or wrongness. The argument can be further abstracted away from God-talk to say that, unless there is a single standard by which to judge, then judging is meaningless.

If degrees of rightness and wrongness are points along a scale, what's the scale? If that scale differs from culture to culture or over time, or any other way, then I can't judge the moral value of those operating on a different scale than I. For example, if, as the average atheist supposes, morals change over time, than why do atheists get so hot and bothered over the violence Israel inflicted on its enemies as related in the OT? It's just a shift in morality over time, right? What right do we of the 21st century have to judge those who lived 3,000 or more years ago in a vastly different culture?

Taking it further, if we allow that the scales can differ, who's to say that each individual can't have their own scale thereby rendering each person free to act according to their own scales with impunity. If there is only one scale then we can judge moral actions, regardless of who's they are, or where or when they are committed. The problem for moral relativists is that they do think certain things are always right and wrong (see the OT example) regardless of the situation even though their philosophy doesn't allow for that.

Kevin: But I’m always left wondering: do Christians know for certain what this ultimate law actually is? Can Christians know what is truly wrong and truly right in God's eyes?

We—all people, not just Christians—can know what this ultimate law is because God has revealed it to us. That doesn't mean that we then automatically obey. We generally choose to obey God's law only when it suits us and serve as our own god the rest of the time.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: The Moral Argument states (more or less) that without a God who is personal, and, in a sense, has moral 'convictions', there is no absolute standard to which we can appeal regarding rightness or wrongness.

Correct. These is no absolute standard.

LB said: The argument can be further abstracted away from God-talk to say that, unless there is a single standard by which to judge, then judging is meaningless.

Wrong. We can still judge - from *our* perspective. But that's all we're doing. We are judging other groups morality by comparing it to our own - not to some mythical yardstick outside of all cultures.

LB said: If degrees of rightness and wrongness are points along a scale, what's the scale?

The 'scale' is the general consensus of the culture doing the measuring.

LB said: If that scale differs from culture to culture or over time, or any other way, then I can't judge the moral value of those operating on a different scale than I.

Yes you can - indeed we do it all the time. I'm sure that you judge the moral standards of atheists (and other theists) against your own moral standards. I know I do.

LB said: For example, if, as the average atheist supposes, morals change over time, than why do atheists get so hot and bothered over the violence Israel inflicted on its enemies as related in the OT?

Because the morality of the OT is being judged by *our* 21st Century standards - and not surprisingly is found seriously wanting... which is why modern Christians do not follow its teachings - because times and cultures have changed since it was written.

LB said: What right do we of the 21st century have to judge those who lived 3,000 or more years ago in a vastly different culture?

The same 'right' that we have to judge our neighbour or our parents.

LB said: Taking it further, if we allow that the scales can differ, who's to say that each individual can't have their own scale thereby rendering each person free to act according to their own scales with impunity.

But we *do* have different ideas of ethics and morality. For example, despite growing up in the same house until my early 20's my brother and I have different moral standards on some issues. Things that he would find distasteful or even wrong hardly bother me at all. This does *not* mean that we can act according to our own beliefs - with impunity. Because we are all part of a greater society and it is that society that makes the rules. We *can* all act according to our beliefs - but it is society that will determine what price we pay for it.

LB said: The problem for moral relativists is that they do think certain things are always right and wrong (see the OT example) regardless of the situation even though their philosophy doesn't allow for that.

I can certainly judge things as being right or wrong - yet still see myself as a moral relativist. What I am judging is from *my* perspective and I freely admit this. I can happily say that I believe that torture is *always* wrong - not matter the circumstances - but admit that such a statement is my *opinion* on the matter. I can provide supporting arguments and would like it to be a universal belief but acknowledge that I cannot provide an absolute foundation for this because such absolutes (and foundations) simply do not exist. Morality is purely a human cultural *invention* which is why different cultures have (and have had) different ideas of what is right and what is wrong.

LB said: We—all people, not just Christians—can know what this ultimate law is because God has revealed it to us.

See, all that you are saying is that *your* belief system is the correct one - and that everyone else is wrong in some way. Strangely members of other groups also say the same thing. Even if one of the countless different groups *saying* such things is correct - how do we determine which one it is?

Phil said...

Kevin,

You asked, "which moral precepts from the Bible are relevant, and what standards do you use to determine this?" I believe that all the moral precepts from the Bible are relevant, because God's character and moral nature is unchanging. This was a very thoughtful post, but I believe your examples of supposed contradictions in scripture can all be resolved with careful study. The "thou shalt not kill," command, for example, is often misunderstood. The Hebrew word used for "kill" in that command does not refer to simply any instance of taking another's life, but to the specific act of what we'd call "murder." The two God-ordained instances of life-taking asserted in scripture are in warfare and government-run capital punishment. This distinction is further articulated in other sections of the Torah. The OT Israelites would have understood that these two ideals would not be included in the "thou shalt not kill" command, so there really is not a discrepancy, though many people today, far removed from the time, culture, and language in which the command was issued, have misinterpreted it.

-phil

CyberKitten said...

Phil said: The Hebrew word used for "kill" in that command does not refer to simply any instance of taking another's life, but to the specific act of what we'd call "murder."

Except that murder is (at least today) a legal definition rather than a moral one. Murder can be defined as *unlawful* killing - which, of course, means that there is *lawful* killing too - as in your two examples. But such distinctions are definied by human law and not by God. It also means that we still need to draw a distinction between legal acts and moral acts because we can clearly have immoral laws.

For example, although abortion is legal in many countries (legal and therefore not murder) some people still see it as breaking Gods commandments against killing - but obviously not against his more legalistic command against *unlawful* killing... except when human law goes up against Biblical law - which if often does rather inevitably with our two cultures being so far apart in time and space.

Laughing Boy said...

...murder is... a legal definition rather than a moral one

Are you saying:

a) murder is 'immoral' only because a legal restriction against it has been adopted, or

b) that it's not immoral, just illegal, or

c) none of the above.

What is the distinction between legal acts and moral acts?

...we can clearly have immoral laws

That's clear enough to me but I'm confused as to how it's clear to you. If morality is what a culture says it is (through it's laws) then it's laws are, ipso facto, moral.

Kevin Parry said...

Laughing Boy and CyberKitten: you guys have raised excellent points. I must admit that, of all the issues that I had to work through in my mind since leaving Christianity, the whole morality matter has been the most difficult (but I’m making progress!).

One thing that I’ve realised while struggling with this whole issue is that subjective morality doesn’t necessarily mean we can act with impunity. As Cyberkitten wrote, we can do what we like as individuals, but society will ultimately hold us accountable. And how does society determine the rules? Well, I would imagine that most societies aim to survive and prosper, and in order to achieve survival these societies would naturally and generally discourage destructive behaviour – such as genocide and murder – that would be detrimental to the well-being of that society.

So I think broader society will generally form the rules and boundaries, and generally keep the wayward individual in check. But the rules and boundaries have changed over time, and vary between different cultures. Why is this? I think one factor is the balance that is struck between the needs of the individual and the needs of society, and this balance is different for every culture. For example, in Western society, the needs of the individual are generally (but not always) given preference, while in some African cultures, the needs of the collective generally (but not always) outweigh the needs of the individual. It’s in this grey space of tension – the tension between the individual and society – that some form of ethics is formed, and the boundaries developed. What do you think?

LB wrote:
We—all people, not just Christians—can know what this ultimate law is because God has revealed it to us. That doesn't mean that we then automatically obey. We generally choose to obey God's law only when it suits us and serve as our own god the rest of the time

What I was trying get at in this post is that – even if there is a God who has decided on an ultimate law – Christians don’t really have an idea of what constitutes this law, because they disagree with each other on the details. A Baptist couple might think they are not disobeying God when they use a condom, but a Catholic couple might think otherwise. Who is right in God’s eyes?

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Phil

Thank you for clarifying the issue on murder. But keep in mind that the Israelites killed children, pregnant woman and animals in the Old Testament, and occurrences of rape seem to be implicitly implied in the text. I think there is a difference between waging war to protect yourself, and genocide. I would imagine that many Christians would go to war to protect their country, but would they be comfortable killing innocent babies? I don't know if they would. I think their 'moral sense' would contradict the type of 'morality' (in terms of warfare) outlined in the Bible.

Phil wrote:
I believe that all the moral precepts from the Bible are relevant, because God's character and moral nature is unchanging.

Fair enough. God’s moral character might not change, but the moral character of Christians has. Christians may preach an objective/ultimate/unchanging moral law, but they themselves have lived according to a relative morality that has changed over time. What I'm saying is that many people claim to know God's law, but everyone has differing versions of what this law is actually all about.

CyberKitten said...

LB asked: What is the distinction between legal acts and moral acts?

Laws are rules and prohibitions designed by a Government of a particular State that are normally only extant withing that States boundaries. Morals are beliefs held by individuals and groups that guide them in making choices in their lives and are often seen as universal by them. So a legal act would be acting within a States laws and a moral act would be acting in accordance with a set of beliefs - these two are not always in agreement.

LB said: That's clear enough to me but I'm confused as to how it's clear to you. If morality is what a culture says it is (through it's laws) then it's laws are, ipso facto, moral.

But a cultures morality is *not* determined by its laws. Often a cultures morality is later enshrined in law but the moral belief normally comes first. A classic example here recently was a new anti-terrorist law brought in that allowed people to be held indefinitely in prison on suspicion of terrorist activity without actually being charged with any crime. Almost immediately it was challenged (and thankfully struck down by our Supreme Court in the House of Lords) on the grounds that it violated the European Convention on Human Rights and that it was quite simply *wrong* because it also violated the principle that people are considered innocent until *proven* guilty. In other words the new law was morally offensive.

Legality and morality might be close companions - as they often are - but they are not one and the same thing. That would imply that Governments (who create Laws) are inherently moral creatures... and we all know that's not true! Also, even if a Law is considered moral to the majority of people some groups might still find that it is immoral and oppose it on those grounds. Such is life in any multi-cultural, multi-ethic and multi-moral stand point society.

Laughing Boy said...

KP: Who is right in God’s eyes?

Who knows with absolute certainty but God? Is my responsibility before God to:

1) understand every detail of every moral and theological issue, or

2) love God (which includes studying His Word to understand such issues) and follow Him as best I can given my current understanding?

What would we accomplish in life if we refrained from attempting anything that we couldn't do perfectly or with complete confidence that our every decision was correct?

I serve a God who doesn't rely on outward signs (how much I know, how well I keep the Law, etc.) to rightly judge me. This is both good news and bad news.

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my post. I'd like to offer my thoughts in response to 2 comments you made.

#1 - "keep in mind that the Israelites killed children, pregnant woman and animals in the Old Testament, and occurrences of rape seem to be implicitly implied in the text."

I think it first needs to be clarified that rape has never been advocated or condoned in any part of Scripture. On the contrary, the biblical record strongly suggests that rape brings awful results for everyone involved (perhaps the most famous example is that of David's son Amnon). Second, concerning instances of warfare in which God commanded the slaughter of women and children, this was not a normative command even for the Israelite conquest of Canaan, but was only issued in certain key cities during the conquest. The Hebrew term for this kind of attack (herem) means to "put under the ban," and the purpose of which was to ensure purity among God's chosen people by not allowing any aspect of pagan influence to continue existing among them (a command which the Israelites failed to obey, much to their detriment). This type of warfare was specific to the establishment of the Israelite nation as a chosen, distinct, and peculiar people. It has nowhere else in history been commanded, so we should not understand it as normative practice, but rather as a salient reminder of the importance of preserving godly purity in our lives (an unchanging objective moral standard).

#2 - "What I'm saying is that many people claim to know God's law, but everyone has differing versions of what this law is actually all about."

The above comment doesn't appear to be evidence for the absence of objective moral standards, but rather an observation of the fact that no one has completely comprehended the depths of God's character (and, therefore, no one fully and perfectly understands the exact behavior which should result from a completely perfect understanding of God). However, do not neglect the fact that Bible believers have much, much more in common when it comes to moral standards than they have differences. It's easy to highlight the relatively few disharmonies among the church while ignoring centuries of consensus on major moral issues.

phil

Laughing Boy said...

CK: Laws are rules and prohibitions designed by a Government...Morals are beliefs held by individuals and groups that guide them in making choices in their lives...

OK. This is a helpful distinction. Although I would argue that groups can't have beliefs since groups don't have minds—groups can only have laws or rules. But that's nit picking.

So a law is immoral under what circumstances exactly? Majority opinion of the legislators? Majority opinion of the citizenry? Your opinion? My opinion? Did the people who initiated that anti-terrorist law think it was immoral?

If, as you say, morality is an individual belief, then the morality of a law, person, or act, is not a quality of that law, person or act, but just the observer's opinion of it. That seems to me to be the only logically available conclusion.

Laughing Boy said...

KP: ...subjective morality doesn’t necessarily mean we can act with impunity. As Cyberkitten wrote, we can do what we like as individuals, but society will ultimately hold us accountable

Don't confuse laws and morals. We might be punished if our actions run counter to the law, regardless of the morality of the act. What if society does not hold us accountable? What if my immoral act goes unnoticed?

That's an interesting question (if I say so myself): Can an immoral act go unnoticed? Or better yet, can an act that goes unnoticed be immoral?

Say that I think torturing stray cats to death is not immoral. I don't notice it, since it's not immoral to me. I don't do it in the open (since my torture chamber is in my basement) and I never get caught. Nobody observes it, therefore nobody thinks it immoral, therefore it is not. It's very much like the old philosophical conundrum, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear, does it make a sound?

Laughing Boy said...

Me: Nobody observes it, therefore nobody thinks it immoral, therefore it is not.

Maybe this is a better way to put it:

Nobody observes it, therefore nobody can judge that I behaved immorally, therefore I have not.

Kevin Parry said...

Hi Phil

Thanks for your reply.

Phil wrote:
I think it first needs to be clarified that rape has never been advocated or condoned in any part of Scripture.

Fair enough. But one is left wondering what the reason would be for Israelite soldiers to take virgin woman ‘for themselves’ in Numbers 31:14-18, and whether those woman would be treated with respect. But you are right, it isn’t explicit, and I accept your point.

Phil wrote
This type of warfare was specific to the establishment of the Israelite nation as a chosen, distinct, and peculiar people. It has nowhere else in history been commanded, so we should not understand it as normative practice, but rather as a salient reminder of the importance of preserving godly purity in our lives (an unchanging objective moral standard).

I don’t know Hebrew, so I accept your interpretation of these passages. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I just want to clarify something: you argue that the above scenario was an exception, but can an unchanging objective moral standard allow for exceptions?

Your comment also brings up another broader point which I think I will tackle in another blog post. Is it right to kill innocent people because God commands it, even if it is a once off exception, as you explained above? You see, the biggest danger that I see in an authoritarian approach to morality is that it emphasises following commands over and above anything else. If we follow God’s instructions, then we are good; if we don’t, then we are bad. It doesn’t matter if we cause untold suffering and destruction in the process. In other words, the consequences of our actions doesn’t matter; what matters is that we please God.

This runs counter to my own moral system that I’m slowly developing. I try not to measure the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of my actions according to whether I follow commands or not, but according to the consequences of my actions. If my actions would result in suffering for innocent individual (even if would ensure some form of unseen, intangible ‘purity’), then I won’t follow through with those actions, even if the creator of the universe commands me to do so.

Jason said...

I know I'm a little late weighing in here...


I don't think morality is really all that culturally relative or changing over time. I think that acting toward others in a way that is consistent with one's expectations of how others will act toward you is living ethically. Simply the golden rule represents a big part of living ethically (but maybe not the whole picture). It is improved further by taking the perspective of others. "Do unto others as they want to be done."

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

Thanks again for your thoughtful responses to my comments. Concerning the account you mentioned in Numbers 31, I believe that an act of mercy actually was shown to the young women in this case, as they had little chance of survival outside of family protection in that culture and society. Sure, we can speculate that perhaps some of them were not treated "respectfully," but like you said, there is no explicit indication of that. More importantly, there is also no indication that God would have approved of those imagined scenarios. In any event, I don't think this text could be used to show that God advocates forcible rape, although it is admittedly a difficult story to understand through a 21st Century perspective.

Regarding your question, "can an unchanging objective moral standard allow for exceptions?"... my answer is no. However, God does reserve the right to command obedience in different ways at different times, all to uphold the same moral standard. For example, I don't believe that Christians today are commanded to follow the OT Israelite sacrificial system to show our recognition of God's holiness, but we are called to recognize God's holiness and purity in other ways (we use the NT guidelines to discern specific behaviors in this regard, but the OT accounts likewise provide us with strong reminders of how serious the issue of holiness is for God). God's command to completely destroy certain Canaanite cities, then, was not an "exception" to a standard, but a unique act of obedience to which He called the Israelites in order to maintain purity among His people.

In response to your question, "Is it right to kill innocent people because God commands it?"... I think this question reflects a misconception of the term "innocent." According to my theology, no one has a truly innocent standing before God (Rom. 3:9-19); we are only preserved by His divine mercy (Rom. 5:8-11). The notion that anyone is undeserving of death is contrary to the message of the gospel. I have more thoughts on this, but since you mentioned you would do a separate post on this topic, I will look forward to your complete treatment of the subject. Thanks so much for these great discussion points!

And Jason, good to hear from you!

-phil

Laughing Boy said...

I've been thinking.

:-0

I'm going to backtrack and see if this helps us understand each other's viewpoint and, more basically, just what it is we're talking about. My goal is somewhat Cartesian in that I hope that, regardless of our view on the main issue, we can agree on the following points.

First, some definitions right out of Websters®.

***
morality: conformity to the rules of right conduct

morals: principles, standards, or habits with respect to right or wrong conduct

ought: 1. (used to express moral obligation); 2. (used to express justice, moral rightness, etc.) 3. duty or obligation

objective: 1. not influenced by personal feelings; 2. belonging to the object of thought rather that to the thinking subject

subjective: existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought

mutable: liable or subject to change or alteration (ant. immutable)

corrigible: capable of being corrected or reformed (ant. incorrigible)

***

The first thing to see is that, by definition, morals and morality require a standard. Right-ness necessiates wrong-ness and, therefore, a standard by which to judge.

Secondly, see the connection between the ideas of morality and ought-ness. To conduct ourselves rightly is what we ought to do. Ought-ness is not a preference, but a duty. It's nice when what I ought to do is what I prefer to do, but when that's not the case it's so much the worse for my preferences. Ought remains ought.

Next, see that objective means that, whatever else it is, it's external to our minds and it's nature is not dependent on our thoughts about it. If morals are objective, then slander, for example, is wrong whether or not I think it is. Slander would also be wrong for you and everybody else, regardless of what you or everybody else thinks.

It's been said that morals change over time. If this is true it doesn't mean morality is subjective, but mutable. The rules of American football change every year, so are they not objective? Objectiveness and mutability are different categories.

Finally, think about the word 'corrigible'. If morals change (if they are mutable) do they change for the better (can they be corrected, are they corrigible)? If morals are corrigible, what does that mean about their subjectivity or objectivity? In other words, how do we come to understand that we need to correct our behavior?

Does thinking about these concepts help us understand why we take the stand we do on morality's objective (or subjective) status? Does it reinforce or challenge our position?

CyberKitten said...

LB said: If morals change (if they are mutable) do they change for the better (can they be corrected, are they corrigible)?

There I think is the crux (or at least *a* crux) of the problem. You seem to want to measure the perceived change in morality against an external yardstick. How else can we say that things change for the better or get worse unless we relate them to something else...?

However, I for one do not agree that such a yardstick exists or indeed *can* exist because anything we come up with to measure human constructed morality against is just another human construct. There is nothing *external* to measure it against. You could say that God is the external measure - but I view God (in all his/her forms) as a human cultural construct and therefore not external at all. All standards, principles and rules are human inventions - nothing more. These change over time and are different in different cultures - because the history (and much else besides) of those cultures are different. We can probably rank them and judge that some are better than others - but any judgment would simply be from our standpoint. We cannot stand outside ourselves to judge these things objectively for there is nowhere for us to stand in order that such a judgment can be made.

Laughing Boy said...

CK: We can probably rank them and judge that some are better than others...

If I want to calibrate my homemade ruler I can mark off, say, a 10cm line on a piece of paper. After admiring my line-drawing skill I can begin testing. I take that line and put my ruler to it and discover to my great relief that my ruler indicates that my 10cm line is indeed 10cm, therefore, I know my ruler does not require correction. So it goes in SubjectiveLand. Correction is not in the language.

If we accept your view of morality then I'm curious as to how, for instance, the abolition of slavery got going in the UK. Despite it's nearly universal acceptance, what caused Wilberforce, Newton, and very few others to come to see it as wrong and in need of correction? What can cause a change of mind other than something external to that mind?

CK: We cannot stand outside ourselves to judge these things objectively for there is nowhere for us to stand in order that such a judgment can be made.

Would we really need to stand outside ourselves? I think if we could simply see outside ourselves and acknowldege an objective reality beyond our noses, that would be sufficient to give us something by which to judge our own thoughts and actions.

CyberKitten said...

LB said: I take that line and put my ruler to it and discover to my great relief that my ruler indicates that my 10cm line is indeed 10cm, therefore, I know my ruler does not require correction.

Yes, a 10cm line is a 10cm line and will remain a 10cm line. As a 4 inch line is a 4 inch line and a 3 flugi line is a 3 flugi line and a 12 yalto line is etc.... You can measure yardsticks against themselves and against other yardsticks - but you would need an objective yardstick to measure the subjective yardsticks against. I maintain that such an objective yardstick does not exist because *all* yardsticks are subjective.

LB said: I'm curious as to how, for instance, the abolition of slavery got going in the UK.

I have no idea. Presumably some people changed their minds on the issue and had enough will and skill to get the majority opinion overturned. Such things are not particularly unusual - its how things change.

LB said: What can cause a change of mind other than something external to that mind?

Many things I imagine. We have all changed our minds about something I'm guessing. How does that normally occur?

LB said: I think if we could simply see outside ourselves and acknowldege an objective reality beyond our noses, that would be sufficient to give us something by which to judge our own thoughts and actions.

It is probable that an external reality separate from ourselves exists that is likely to be similar to our perceptions of it. However, we're not talking about objective *reality* here but objective *morality*. Morality exists within the minds of people. Where exactly does this external morality supposedly exist? Morality is not an independent object 'out there' but a system of ideas and beliefs held by individuals and groups.

Laughing Boy said...

For anyone who's interested, here are to links to articles on Immanuel Kant's 'Caterogical Imperative'. The first link is a very brief overview that includes links to online versions of his "A Critique of Pure Reason" and "On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives". The second link is to a more substantial article on the same topic. Enjoy.

Kant's Categorical Imperative: The Key to Telling Right from Wrong

Kant's Moral Philosophy

gip-k said...

I had struggled for about 3 years with all of the things you have pointed out. I struggled for years with what seeemd God's obvious cruelty and unfairness to humanity.

In the end, I had to really decide whether, despite believing in Christ and believing in the existance of the Christian God, whether I really wanted to serve someone like Him.

In the end, I had to forcibly put my own accusations against God aside and conclude that He's really not constrained to any moral system that we might create. My thoughts are not His thoughts, nor are my ways His ways. Since He's God, I can't tell Him how to run things, no matter how much that I might want to.

I couldn't be a Christian and disdain God at the same time, so I decided to put my disdain away, and try to see "God in Christ, reconciling Mankind to Himself."

Of course, not everyone can do that, and it's obvious why. But I'm able to do it, and I do.

Just my two cents.

Kevin Parry said...

LB wrote
That's an interesting question (if I say so myself): Can an immoral act go unnoticed? Or better yet, can an act that goes unnoticed be immoral?

Sorry to get back to you so late on this one, but your question *is* very interesting, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last two weeks. I guess the relativist (and I’m still unsure myself if I’m one) would argue that the actual act of secretly torturing cats is not inherently immoral in itself, because the broader society that condemns such actions has no knowledge of it. But what if someone argued that the act is immoral simply because the cat (which is a separate being) is involved, and is negatively affected by it? In other words, we can’t place a moral distinction on an act unless the consequences of that act somehow affect other being (animals or humans). Not really an answer, I know; I’m just writing down my thoughts in response to your excellent question.

Jason wrote:
I think that acting toward others in a way that is consistent with one's expectations of how others will act toward you is living ethically.

This is a great comment. I think that the Golden Rule (as well as the Platinum Rule: treat others as *they* like to be treated) is a good starting point for living ethically. It recognizes the fact that we are social animals and that we live in a society with other individuals, and that our actions can negatively or positively affect others.

Phil wrote:
I have more thoughts on this, but since you mentioned you would do a separate post on this topic, I will look forward to your complete treatment of the subject. Thanks so much for these great discussion points!

Thanks Phil for your thoughts. I will post up the post shortly, and I would love to resume our discussion there.

gip-k wrote
In the end, I had to forcibly put my own accusations against God aside and conclude that He's really not constrained to any moral system that we might create. My thoughts are not His thoughts, nor are my ways His ways. Since He's God, I can't tell Him how to run things, no matter how much that I might want to.

Welcome, gip-k. Thank you for your comment. For me, and I only speak for myself, such surrender to a higher authority seems so disempowering. It is an act of giving yourself up to someone else, and letting that other person do with you whatever they like. Is that not a characteristic of an abusive relationship? It seems so unbalanced to me, somehow. But your comment has inspired me to write another blog post on this topic. So thank you for posting!