Moral Relativism

This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant.

Question from Steven:
I have been debating morality with a theist, and I was a little unclear about moral relativism and the implications of the law.

1. Does a moral relativist have to be an anarchist?
2. How can relativists agree upon any set of laws?
This is specifically in reference to Dawkins wanting the pope put in prison, and my friend is arguing that as a relativist you can’t judge a child rapist.

Thanks for the help.

Answer:
This will become a reference point for similar questions, as this comes up a lot these days.

Firstly, this has no bearing on your discussion of the Pope and the Catholic Church, because child rape is wrong according to the tenets of the Church itself. Even if non-believers couldn’t judge the rapists and all accessories, the Church must do or be proven hypocritical. And now that’s out of the way.

Now to answer your questions directly:
1. No, relative (non-absolute) morals are still morals and still have worth and can still be supported. Same with laws, so anarchy is not necessary.
2. Relativists can and do agree on laws by examining their relative merit and picking what appear to be the best ones.

Moral relativism, in the sense your theist means, is the opposite of moral absolutism. Your theist thinks that God has set certain moral absolutes for us, which are supported by His divine authority, and without these no moral judgement can be supported – even the judgement that child rape is bad and should be punished.

Without being assured of the existence of a particular god as described in some religion, there’s no way to know what the universe’s absolute morals are, if any. This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant. In their place, we use very similar moral codes – most codes condemn murder and dishonesty, value generosity and compassion and so forth – but we support them with things besides gods: history, the law, basic human empathy, the reasoning of philosophers (including some religious ones), abstract principles like reciprocity and the minimisation of harm and so on.

According to any of the above, to take your instance, child rape is wrong and immoral, the perpetrators deserve punishment and the victims deserve protection and/or compensation. You can reason from first principles that this is the case, for example…
– via the law: child rape is explicitly outlawed nearly everywhere.
– via harm minimisation: child rape harms the child for no good reason.
– via human empathy: you wouldn’t want to feel what the child feels while being raped.
Therefore, especially when you use several approaches, you have an objective and literally reasonable basis for your moral judgements.

The issue is that any of these objective but non-absolute bases can be challenged and judgements dismissed, whereas the divine authority of hypothetical moral absolutes cannot be trumped. This is true, and as a moral relativist (again, anyone who isn’t a moral absolutist) one must be prepared to defend one’s morality when challenged. The important thing is that one can defend oneself with logic, precedent and documentation.

Moral absolutists, on the other hand, defend only one thing: the existence of moral absolutes. If they can establish that, their righteousness in this matter is assured, but they have not and possibly cannot. (For more information, see my discussion of recent attempts.)

Ultimately, we must all choose on what to base our morality: on a combination of the flawed but sturdy and obviously real systems available to us on this planet (which usually work together very well), or on a supposedly perfect and all-encompassing moral code which may not even be there.

SmartLX

The Great Big Arguments #7: Morality

“Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, using various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing to support one adjustment over another.”

The argument, as straightforwardly put by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:
1. Moral facts exist.
2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
3. The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.

Answer:
A common opinion of the religious is that a person can’t be good without God. This argument goes a step further and says that because we know what is good and right and what is wrong, there must be a God.

A more widely used name for a “moral fact” is a “moral absolute” or “absolute moral”. It’s a standing judgement that something is either right or wrong, no matter what. In practical terms, it is what it is regardless of what people think. It’s true anywhere in the world, at any time. It’s the moral equivalent of a logical axiom or a fundamental universal constant.

Since the existence of moral facts is the first premise, and the second premise depends on it, the whole thing hinges on whether they can actually be established. So how do apologists go about doing this? Most of the time, they point out moral judgements which nearly everyone agrees on, such as that murder, rape or an event like the Holocaust is/was bad and wrong.

This won’t do, because moral facts or absolutes as described in these arguments are supposed to be independent of human beings. They’re specific properties of the universe like the laws of physics or logic, written into it by a god. If every human being on Earth disagreed with one (from the religious perspective, if all of humanity turned against God), it would still stand. Therefore the true moral absolutes (if any) could be completely at odds with near-universal human opinions, and so the fact that there are near-universal human moral opinions doesn’t make them absolutes. It just means humans have things in common.

A blogger arguing for moral absolutes challenged me to come up with a reasonable way to see the Holocaust (among other horrible actions) as a good thing. The implication was that if I failed, our near-universal condemnation of the Holocaust had to be based on a moral absolute. That’s wrong, as I’ve just explained, but I took him up on it anyway. All I had to do to contradict him was step outside of the human race and consider the Holocaust from the perspective of ants, or termites. Fewer Jews in Germany meant more abandoned houses in the ghettos, so more food and living space for bugs of all kinds. The Holocaust was so obviously wrong to humans, but if it loses its tragedy when exclusively human concerns are ignored then that’s hardly an absolute.

Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, supporting one adjustment over another with various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing. It appears that we’ve done it all ourselves, completely independent and ignorant of what any true absolute moral facts might be.

SmartLX

Jesus…and some other stuff

“I’m here because when I realised I was an atheist, I decided to crash-test my atheism.”

Question from Rob:
Hi there,

1.I’ve been reading through some of the discussions on the site. I just wanted to explain why I believe what I believe but at the same time ask about your approach to evidence. You say in one post that you hold to an atheist position because of an absence of available, substantive evidence for God. But I can’t find anywhere on here a thorough discussion of the evidence of Jesus’ life as recorded in the new testament. Sorry if I’ve missed something!

For example, you say that the claim that Jesus is God doesn’t stand on its own merit, partly because the writers of the gospels wanted their readers to believe they were true (“whether or not they were true”). But the question of their motives is irrelevant – indeed they tell us of their motives (eg Luke – “I wanted to write an orderly account…so that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Or John – “These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing you may have life…”). Similarly, some of the most reliable and thorough accounts of the holocaust are written by Jews who have motives (to open people’s eyes to the horror of what happened and to ensure it never happens again), but these motives don’t render their accounts untrue. On the contrary – they are particularly passionate about preserving the truth, and so their accounts are the best place to go. All recorded history is biased in some way, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it.

The question then is “ARE they in fact writing the truth, as they claim to be?”. And I think it’s important to realise that these accouts were not written in a vacuum, as it were. They reference real places, and real dates, and real people. And into that context they place this extraordinary life. And what persuaded me as I looked into this was that if they had fabricated all these stories, the accounts wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of weeks – because the inhabitants of the towns where these astonishing events were supposed to have happened before large crowds would have been the first to pipe up and say “Hang on, I’ve lived in Capernaum/Bethany/Jerusalem etc all my life, and that never happened.” Worth remembering too that 1st century Jews were far less religiously gullible than we are – any claim to be God in such an entrenched monotheistic culture was outrageous (as indeed it proved), so Christianity never had a tougher audience than the very society in which it began (who would be hugely suspicious, and who had access to the people and places named in the gospel accounts and therefore every opportunity to disprove it if they could).

Added to this is the question of the disciples’ own transformation. If we think they made it up, we must ask “Why would they make this up?”. They had nothing to gain – in fact they lost everything and nearly all were martyred for what we would then be saying they knew to be untrue (as an aside, this sets them apart from, say, suicide bombers today – both groups sincerely believe that their views are true, but the disciples were in a unique position to KNOW if their stories were UNtrue). Furthermore, something transformed them from a terrified and defeated group locked in a room fearing the worst (after Jesus arrest, trial and execution), to a fearless, committed and convinced group of preachers and missionaries. The Bible explains that what happened was Jesus appeared to them risen, and that is what they preached.

There’s lots more I could say, I just wanted to begin a slightly fairer discussion on the subject of evidence.

2. Perhaps you could clear something up for me. I’m always confused when atheists campaign against Christianity (in particular) and other religions. Thank you for a balanced and reasonable approach on this website! But why do the so-called New Atheists have such an agenda against Christianity? If faith is a virus, as Dawkins suggests, should he not be pleased as he sees competitors in the gene pool being disadvantaged and losing a lot of street cred (which I have, believe me!), rather than rail against it. For if I’m merely a sack of particles that will soon be redistributed underground, why should it matter to me what other sacks of particles think whilst they are “alive”. How indeed can I think evaluate that a world without “religion” would be better for subsequent generations (if that is the driving force) without importing some external set of values about what is “good” or “bad”?

3. And a cheeky personal one for you! Do you see all these messages merely as things that need rebuttal? Is there no part of you that gets tired of having to explain away and thinks “Wow, maybe this is true!”?

Answer:
1.
Arguments based on Jesus are rather popular with Christians, so we’ve been through a few.

  • In the comments here I looked at the extra-Biblical documents mentioning Jesus.
  • Shortly afterwards I examined the mention by Josephus in particular.
  • Something more relevant to your point: in the comments here I respond to Simon Greenleaf’s well-worn piece, Testimony of the Evangelists.
  • Most relevant of all: back on the old site, I responded to the argument that the apostles wouldn’t have made it all up, as put forward by Lee Strobel.
  • .
    To respond to your piece directly, as briefly as I can (naturally, comment if you want to delve into something):

  • Of course the fact that the authors of the Gospels wanted to convince people of the divinity of Jesus doesn’t simply invalidate the idea, because they’d want to convince people just as much if Jesus were actually divine as if he weren’t. It certainly doesn’t support the idea, though. We expect bias, but it’s not easy to get a clear picture of an event if all known sources are explicitly biased the same way.
  • Best guess is, the Gospels first saw wide distribution about 30 years after the fact. That doesn’t sound like much, but back then it was the high end of the average lifespan. Consider that combined with the estimated literacy rate in the area: 3% or less. By the time the story was exposed to criticism, few citizens who would have seen Jesus pre-crucifixion were still alive, and few if any of those could have written a contrary account at the time. Nor would they have bothered if they could, in most cases, because as far as everyone but Jesus’ followers was concerned his death was a non-event – just another self-proclaimed Messiah easily scooped up by the authorities. Placing real places and people in the stories therefore wasn’t much bolder than Winston Groom writing JFK and the White House into Forrest Gump.
  • Your last paragraph on the subject is very directly addressed by what I wrote on the old site years ago. Here I’ll just say that even if they knew it was untrue (and there are scenarios floating around where the apostles were taken in like everybody else), then sticking to their story and maintaining their following (instead of having everybody turn on them) was actually quite a good survival strategy in the short term. The first apostle to die after Judas apparently did so eleven whole years later, despite persecution by both Romans and Jews.
  • .
    2.
    Religion isn’t the only source of altruism. Richard Dawkins and the “New Atheists” are against religion itself, not trying to wipe out the religious. They, and I, see it as beneficial to religious people for them to abandon their faiths, which is part of why they attack those faiths. They’re doing people a service. (They seem to attack Christianity more often than other faiths simply because Christianity is the major faith in the countries where they live, and therefore the most immediate instance of religion. Their criticisms usually apply to other faiths, however.)

    Religions often claim to be the only absolute authority on what is good and bad, but that’s only true if the religion is. Otherwise you’re appealing to an authority which isn’t there. There are many ways to measure merit on objective bases, rather than absolute, which are actually known to exist. Historical experience and research, common sense, the law, the minimisation of harm, the maximisation of resources and our instinctive empathy and altruism are examples. Any of them can be challenged, but especially if they all agree on something then you can reason that something is good or bad. You literally have a reasonable basis.

    We care for others, knowing that they’re sacks of particles, because we are sacks of particles and we know what it’s like. It can be hard sometimes, and we generally don’t like to see other sacks suffer. We’re wired that way, thanks to millions of years of interacting with sacks like ourselves.

    3.
    When those who disagree with you have apologetics organisations like CARM which devote tremendous resources to producing material that they challenge others to “explain away”, you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining whether you’re right or wrong. The sheer volume of Christian apologetic is proportional to the sheer amount of Christian proselytisation (and by extension the sheer number of devout Christians), and by itself says nothing about the truth of the subject matter.

    I’m here because when I realised I was an atheist, I decided to crash-test my atheism. I came to a place where all the great big arguments would be championed by the faithful, to see whether they were in fact convincing and whether I’d missed something. They weren’t convincing at all, and now I run the place.

    SmartLX

    The Basics

    “You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially.”

    Question from Matthew:
    I don’t have any friends who claim to be atheist and I simply like to understand the position better. If you have any other input in addition to these questions I would appreciate it. Thanks.
    1. Do you believe that a personal God exists? Why or why not?

    2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate? Why or why not?

    3. What is the purpose of human existence?

    4. How do you know what is right and wrong?

    5. What happens to a person at death?

    Answer:
    I assume you know the answers to some of those, but I appreciate that you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially. If you want more detail, comment and ask for it, and/or better yet read through some older questions.

    1. An atheist does not believe that any god exists, let alone a personal capital-G God. The reason is generally lack of evidence or convincing arguments supporting the existence of such a god, and that’s the case with me. Check out The Great Big Arguments #1-#6, consisting of most of the early pieces on this new site, to see why the well-known arguments you might be in the habit of using have not proved convincing.

    2. If one does not believe in gods, why would one believe despite this that Jesus was the incarnation of a specific god?

    Leaving the basic position of atheism aside, the claim that Jesus was God does not stand on its own merit. The New Testament was written by people who all wanted people to believe it, whether or not it was true. The prophecies supposedly fulfilled by Jesus were available to his chroniclers, making them candidates for #5. Made to Order (in my terminology) on the list of explanations that must be considered besides the false dilemma of pure chance and true prescience. Surviving extra-Biblical documentation of Jesus, for instance that passage by Josephus, has its own issues.

    3. Since the human race developed on its own and needed no creator, there was no external purpose for its emergence. The reason for the existence of humans is that life arose on a planet saturated with its building blocks, and then competed with itself over billions of years. During this demanding competition, more and more complex forms became the standard until we were the next evolutionary step.

    If you mean to ask why we bother to keep existing now, it’s because we want to. There isn’t much of an alternative that we know of. As for giving purpose to individual human lives, humans can do that themselves.

    4. From many different sources – the law, historical precedent, varying philosophies (including religious ones) formulated over the centuries, common sense, simple concepts such as fairness and the minimisation of harm, etc. – we have built a very good picture of what is right and wrong to humans. Obviously we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on most things.

    Any of the above sources could be wrong, and any could be challenged, but they’re there and each one tends to be consistent. The alternative is to appeal to an absolute morality, one independent of humans, which may not even exist and simply cannot be tested. I don’t need the whole universe to agree with me that what I do is right, but if most of the human race agrees based on real concepts that can be reasoned through, then I literally have a reasonable basis for my actions.

    5. At death, a person ceases to exist. The person’s condition is often described using that rare and fascinating antonym of “existence”, namely “oblivion”. What happens to a person after death is therefore not worth considering, because after death there is no longer a person for anything to happen to. There is only a body. We have one life. Good thing it’s an interesting life.

    Chew on that lot and speak up if you’d like to explore anything.

    SmartLX