Tag Archives: Ethics

Do moral dilemmas undermine objective moral absolutes?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

One reason why some people reject the existence of objective morality is because moral absolutes can conflict.

Canadian philosopher Michael Horner to explains the problem.

He writes:

You may have been confronted with the story of the Nazi soldier coming to the door of the family who are hiding some Jewish people in their home and asking them point blankly, “Are there any Jews here?” The person telling the story then asks you, “What would you say?” or more precisely, “What should you say?”

[…]I think for many people the term moral absolutes connotes ideas like inflexibility and rigidity, and that there can never be exemptions. I have also found that many people believe that holding to moral absolutes means that circumstances are not relevant in a moral evaluation and that moral absolutism cannot handle moral dilemmas. But in fact it is possible to believe in moral absolutes, or as I prefer to call them objective moral values, without adhering to these connotations I have mentioned.

For many people to believe in moral absolutes is to believe in rules that no other rules can ever trump. It follows from this that moral absolutes are all equal and there can never be any exemptions. But what if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy?

We know from experience that very often more than one moral rule applies to a situation. This often leads to moral dilemmas. So in the ‘hiding the Jews example’ the moral rule of telling the truth seems to apply to the situation, but it would seem that the moral rule to protect innocent human life from torture and murder applies also.

If absolutes are all equal there is no way out of the dilemma. You can’t choose one absolute over another because in doing so you would be violating at least one absolute which, in their view, is supposed to be inviolable.

So, in this case, it seems as if the moral absolutist is stuck in a dilemma. If you lie to save the innocent life, then that would be wrong. But if you tell the truth and hand the innocent person over to murderers, then that would be wrong. Does this really disprove objective moral absolutes?

This problem annoys me, because I know this is the kind of objection to objective morality that annoying philosophy lecturers like to push onto freshmen in order to convince them that morality is nonsense.  But does the moral dilemma objection really work?

More Horner:

[…][I]f moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy and the circumstances or the situation were relevant in determining which absolute takes precedent, then there may be a solution to the moral dilemma. That is exactly what I think is the case in the example. I for one have no difficulty knowing that the morally right thing to do in that situation is to protect the life of innocent people from torture and murder rather than tell the truth to a person who has torture and murder in their plans. My moral intuitions are very clear about this.

If someone objects and says, “No, you must always tell the truth. After all it is an absolute, and absolutes by definition can never be violated,” I would point out that they are just using a different hierarchy, putting truth telling above protecting the life of innocent people from torture and murder. There is no way to avoid making a judgment like that since more than one absolute does apply to the situation. I would just ask them to think it through again, and once they see that they have to make a judgment based on some sort of hierarchy in that situation, then I think most people’s moral intuitions will affirm that protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder, in that situation, trumps truth telling. There is no way to avoid choosing one over the other.

But isn’t this moral relativism? After all, we are deciding what to do based on the situation! It’s relativism, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t, because there is always one right thing to do in every situation. In every situation, you always follow the weightiest moral rule. The right thing to do does not depend on your subjective state of mind. It is an objective moral duty, and it is the same for everyone, across all times and in all places. That’s what objective morality means -what is right and wrong is not determined by personal preferences or cultural conventions, which vary by time and place.

And of course, God is the ground of this hierarchy of objective moral absolutes. They existed through him before human beings even appeared, as part of his design for us, his creatures. How we ought to behave is grounded ontologically in God’s design for us.

William Lane Craig lectures on the moral argument at Georgia Tech

Making sense of the meaning of atheism
Making sense of the meaning of atheism

This video has 3 parts, as well as questions and answers in individual clips.

For those who cannot watch the video, you can grab the MP3 file of the lecture, or read this essay by Dr. Craig which covers exactly the same ground as the video. The essay is for Christians already familiar with basic apologetics.

Part 1 of 3:

Part 2 of 3:

Part 2 of 3:

Here’s a quick couple of quotes from the essay for those who cannot watch:

If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. After all, what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest. If, as Kurtz states, “The moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion,”5 then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably.

The objective worthlessness of human beings on a naturalistic world view is underscored by two implications of that world view: materialism and determinism. Naturalists are typically materialists or physicalists, who regard man as a purely animal organism. But if man has no immaterial aspect to his being (call it soul or mind or what have you), then he is not qualitatively different from other animal species. For him to regard human morality as objective is to fall into the trap of specie-ism. On a materialistic anthropology there is no reason to think that human beings are objectively more valuable than rats. Secondly, if there is no mind distinct from the brain, then everything we think and do is determined by the input of our five senses and our genetic make-up. There is no personal agent who freely decides to do something. But without freedom, none of our choices is morally significant. They are like the jerks of a puppet’s limbs, controlled by the strings of sensory input and physical constitution. And what moral value does a puppet or its movements have?

[…]Moreover, if atheism is true, there is no moral accountability for one’s actions. Even if there were objective moral values and duties under naturalism, they are irrelevant because there is no moral accountability. If life ends at the grave, it makes no difference whether one lives as a Stalin or as a saint. As the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky rightly said: “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”

If you want to show this lecture and Q&A to your apologetics group, you can find the DVD here.

You can also read a debate transcript where Dr. Craig puts his ideas to the test, against Dr. Richard Taylor.

Utilitarianism and the Moral Life by J. P. Moreland

I found this essay on After All, but it looks like their site is not working well, so I’m just going to steal it and post it here, in case it disappears completely. This is one of my favorite short essays on utilitarianism, and it’s a wonder that the thing can’t stay up somewhere. Well, it will have a home here now. I’d be surprised to see anyone else be this awesome in a measly 1000 words as Dr. Moreland is below.


Utilitarianism and the Moral Life

What Is Utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism (also called consequentialism) is a moral theory developed and refined in the modern world by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). It can be defined as follows:

An action or moral rule is right if and only if it maximizes the amount of nonmoral good produced in the consequences that result from doing that act or following that rule compared with other acts or rules open to the agent.

By focusing on three features of utilitarianism, we can clarify this definition.

(1) Utilitarian theories of value.

What is a nonmoral good? Utilitarians deny that there are any moral actions or rules that are intrinsically right or wrong. But they do believe in objective values that are nonmoral.

Hedonistic utilitarians say that the only intrinsic good is pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Quantitative hedonists (Bentham) say that the amount of pleasure and pain is the only thing that matters in deciding between two courses of action, I should do the one that produces the greatest amount of pleasure and the least amount of pain (measured by factors like the duration and intensity of the pleasure). Qualitative hedonists (Mill) say that pleasure is the only intrinsic good, but the type of pleasure is what is important, not the amount. They would rank pleasures that come from reading, art, and friendship as more valuable than those that come from, say, a full stomach.

Pluralistic utilitarians
say there are a number of things that have intrinsic, nonmoral value: pleasure, friendship, health, knowledge, freedom, peace, security, and so forth. For pluralists, it is not just the pleasure that comes from friendship that has value but also friendship itself.

Currently, the most popular utilitarian view of value is subjective preference utilitarianism. This position says it is presumptuous and impossible to specify things that have intrinsic nonmoral worth. So, they claim, intrinsic value ought to be defined as that which each individual subjectively desires or wants, provided these do not harm others. Unfortunately, this view collapses into moral relativism.

(2) Utilitarians and maximizing utility.

Utilitarians use the term utility to stand for whatever good they are seeking to produce as consequences of a moral action (e.g., “pleasure” for the hedonist, “satisfaction of subjective preference” for others). They see morality in a means-to-ends way. The sole value of a moral action or rule is the utility of its consequences. Moral action should maximize utility. This can be interpreted in different ways, but many utilitarians embrace the following: the correct moral action or rule is the one that produces the greatest amount of utility for the greatest number of people.

(3) Two forms of utilitarianism: act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism.

According to act utilitarianism, an act is right if and only if no other act available maximizes utility more than the act in question. Here, each new moral situation is evaluated on its own, and moral rules like “don’t steal” or “don’t break promises” are secondary The moral agent must weigh available alternatives and choose the one that produces the best consequences. Rule utilitarianism says that correct moral actions are done in keeping with correct moral rules, However, no moral rule is intrinsically right or wrong. Rather, a correct moral rule is one that would maximize utility if most people followed it as opposed to following an alternative rule. Here, alternative rules (e.g., “don’t lie” vs. “don’t lie unless doing so would enhance friendship”) are compared for their consequences, not specific actions.

What Is Wrong with Utilitarianism?

Several objections show the inadequacy of utilitarianism as a normative moral theory.

First, utilitarianism can be used to justify actions that are clearly immoral. Consider the case of a severely deformed fetus. The child is certain to live a brief, albeit painless life. He or she will make no contribution to society. Society, however, will bear great expense. Doctors and other caregivers will invest time, emotion, and effort in adding mere hours to the baby’s life. The parents will know and love the child only long enough to be heartbroken at the inevitable loss. An abortion negates all those “utility” losses. There is no positive utility lost. Many of the same costs are involved in the care of the terminally ill elderly. They too may suffer no pain, but they may offer no benefit to society. In balancing positives and negatives, and excluding from the equation the objective sacredness of all human life, we arrive at morally repugnant decisions. Here deontological and virtue ethics steer us clear of what is easier to what is right.

Second, in a similar way, utilitarianism denies the existence of supererogatory acts. These are acts of moral heroism that are not morally obligatory but are still praiseworthy. Examples would be giving 75 percent of your income to the poor or throwing yourself on a bomb to save a stranger. Consider the bomb example. You have two choices — throwing yourself on the bomb or not doing so. Each choice would have consequences and, according to utilitarianism, you are morally obligated to do one or the other depending on which option maximized utility. Thus, there is no room for acts that go beyond the call of morality.

Third, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of human rights and human dignity. If enslaving a minority of people, say by a lottery, would produce the greatest good for the greatest number, or if conceiving children only to harvest their parts would do the same, then these could he justified in a utilitarian scheme. But enslavement and abortion violate individual rights and treat people as a means to an end, not as creatures with intrinsic dignity as human beings. If acts of abortion, active euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and so forth maximize utility, then they are morally obligatory for the utilitarian. But any moral system that makes abortion and suicide morally obligatory is surely flawed.

Finally, utilitarianism has an inadequate view of motives and character. We should praise good motives and seek good character because such motives and character are intrinsically valuable. But utilitarianism implies that the only reason we should praise good motives instead of bad ones, or seek good character instead of bad character, is because such acts would maximize utility. But this has the cart before the horse. We should praise good motives and blame bad ones because they are good or bad, not because such acts of praising and blaming produce good consequences.

In sum, it should be clear that utilitarianism is an inadequate moral theory. Unfortunately, ours is a pragmatic culture and utilitarianism is on the rise. But for those of us who follow Christ, a combination of virtue and deontological ethics is a more adequate view of common sense morality found in natural law and of the moral vision contained in the Bible.

Can atheists condemn slavery as immoral? Do atheists believe that slavery is wrong?

Note: For a Christian response to the complaint that the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, see this article and this article for slavery in the Old Testament, and this article for slavery in the New Testament. These are all by Christian philosopher Paul Copan. You can watch a lecture with Paul Copan on the slavery challenge here, and buy a book where he answers the challenge in more detail. There is also a good debate on whether the Bible condones slavery here, featuring David Instone-Brewer and Robert Price. My post is not a formal logical essay on this issue, it is more that I am outraged that atheists, who cannot even rationally ground objective morality, insist on criticizing the morality of the Bible. I think that atheists who are serious about finding the truth about these issues should check out those links, if they are interested in getting to the truth of these matters.

In other posts, I’ve argued that without an objective moral standard of what is right and wrong, any judgments about right and wrong are just individual opinions. So, when an atheist says slavery is wrong, what he really means is that he thinks slavery is wrong for him, in the same way that he thinks that,say, that chocolate ice cream is right for him. He isn’t saying what is wrong objectively, because on atheism there are no objective moral rules or duties. He is speaking for himself: “I wouldn’t own a slave, just like I wouldn’t eat broccoli – because it’s yucky!”. But he has no rational argument against other people owning slaves in other times and places, because their justification for owning slaves is the same as his justification for not owning slaves : personal preference and cultural conventions.

So do atheists oppose slavery? Do they believe in an objective human right to liberty? Well, there are no objective human rights of any kind on atheism. Human beings are just accidents in an accidental universe, and collections of atoms do not mysteriously accrue “rights”. There is no natural right to liberty on atheism. Now consider abortion, which is favored by most atheists. Like slavery, abortion declares an entire class of human beings as non-persons in order to justify preserving their own happiness and prosperity by means of violence. That’s exactly what slavery does, except abortion is worse than slavery, because you actually kill the person you are declaring as a non-person instead of just imprisoning them.

So how many atheists have this pro-abortion view that it is OK to declare unborn children  as non-persons so they can kill them?

Well, according to Gallup, the “non-religious” are the group most likely to support abortion. In fact, 68% favor legalized abortion, compared to only 19% who oppose it.

Take a look at the Gallup poll data from 2012:

Atheists are OK with the strong killing the weak
Most atheists are OK with the strong killing the weak

The Gallup numbers might actually be low, because “No religion” might include people who are spiritual, but not religious. But what about atheists alone?

As a group, atheists tend to be among the most radical supporters of legalized abortion. The Secular Census of 2012 found that 97% of atheists vote for abortion. There are almost no pro-life atheists. Why is it that atheists look at unborn children and think it’s OK to kill them? Well, let’s see what atheists scholars think about morality, and from that we’ll find out why they think abortion is morally permissible.

Atheist scholars think morality is nonsense

Atheist William Provine says atheists have no free will, no moral accountability and no moral significance:

Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.

Source: http://www.arn.org/docs/orpages/or161/161main.htm

Atheists Michael Ruse says atheists have no objective moral standards:

The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.(Michael Ruse, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 262-269).

Atheist Richard Dawkins says atheists have no objective moral standards:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (1995))

Most atheists are like this – although some affirm objective morality, without really having a rational basis for it. In general though, when atheists use moral language to condemn God, the Bible, or Christians, it’s very important to understand that it is just theater. They are trying to use words that describe realities that they do not even believe in, usually with the goal of getting you to stop judging them for their own sin. I blogged about two examples of this before – Richard Carrier and Michael Shermer.

Let’s take a closer look at Richard Dawkins’ statement that there is “no evil and no good”.

Richard Dawkins and morality

Here’s Richard Dawkins’ view of abortion:

Richard Dawkins explains morality on atheism
Richard Dawkins explains morality on atheism

But wait! He goes even further than mere abortion:

Dawkins believes in Darwinian evolution. Survival of the fittest. The strong kill the weak. Where is protection for the unborn in that narrative?

Richard Dawkins even advocates for adultery.

So, what Dawkins really believes is that morality is nonsense. But in order to get you to stop condemning abortion, adultery, infanticide and a whole host of other atheistic misbehaviors, he will try to condemn you using moral language to stop you from making moral judgments. But the goal here is to intimidate you into not judging. By his own words, he thinks that the whole notion of objective moral values and objective moral duties is just nonsense.

Who does oppose slavery?

How did slavery end?

Dinesh D’Souza explains:

Slavery was mostly eradicated from Western civilization–then called Christendom–between the fourth and the tenth century. The Greco-Roman institution of slavery gave way to serfdom. Now serfdom has its problems but at least the serf is not a “human tool” and cannot be bought and sold like property. So slavery was ended twice in Western civilization, first in the medieval era and then again in the modern era.

In the American South, Christianity proved to be the solace of the oppressed. As historian Eugene Genovese documents in Roll, Jordan, Roll, when black slaves sought to find dignity during the dark night of slavery, they didn’t turn to Marcus Aurelius or David Hume; they turned to the Bible. When they sought hope and inspiration for liberation, they found it not in Voltaire or D’Holbach but in the Book of Exodus.

The anti-slavery movements led by Wilberforce in England and abolitionists in America were dominated by Christians. These believers reasoned that since we are all created equal in the eyes of God, no one has the right to rule another without consent. This is the moral basis not only of anti-slavery but also of democracy.

And, in fact, you can see Christians pushing the culture hard against abortion today, just as we did with slavery. We also oppose frivolous divorce, and redefining marriage in a way that normalizes removing mothers and/or fathers away from their children. Defending the weak is what we do.

Don Johnson: six reasons why people reject Christianity

Here’s a post on practical evangelism by Christian scholar Don Johnson.

His list of reasons why people often reject Christianity:

  1. Christians behaving badly
  2. Disappointment with God
  3. Weak or absent father
  4. Social pressure
  5. Cost of discipleship
  6. Immorality (especially sexual immorality)

And here’s the detail on #6:

Of all the motivations and reasons for skepticism that I encounter, immorality is easily the most common. In particular, sexual sin seems to be the largest single factor driving disbelief in our culture. Brant Hanson calls sex “The Big But” because he so often hears this from unbelievers: “’I like Jesus, BUT…’ and the ‘but’ is usually followed, one way or the other, with an objection about the Bible and… sex. People think something’s deeply messed-up with a belief system that says two consenting, unmarried adults should refrain from sex.” In other words, people simply do not want to follow the Christian teaching that sexual intercourse should take place only between and man and woman who are married, so they throw the whole religion out.

The easiest way to justify sin is to deny that there is a creator to provide reality with a nature, thereby denying that there is any inherent order and purpose in the universe.

Aldous Huxley admitted that this is a common reason for skepticism:

I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless. …

For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was …liberation from … a certain system of morality.  We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom…. There was one admirably simple method in our political and erotic revolt: We could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever. Similar tactics had been adopted during the eighteenth century and for the same reasons. (Ends and Means, 270-273)

Indeed, similar tactics have been used extensively up to the present day. If you are looking for two great resources that document the extent to which the work of the world’s “great” atheistic thinkers has been “calculated to justify or minimize the shame of their own debauchery,” (Spiegel, 72) I recommend Intellectuals by Paul Johnson and Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior by E. Michael Jones. The bottom line is that these skeptical scholars didn’t reach their conclusions by following the evidence where it led. They didn’t “discover” that the world was meaningless and then proceed to live accordingly. They lived sinful lives (usually involving some type of sexual deviancy) and then produced theories that justified their actions.

It’s important to understand that an atheist is not identical to a Christian, except not religious. There is something else going on in their minds when they reject very obvious evidences like the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, the habitability arguments, etc. The something else that is going on is hinted at when you look at atheist attitudes to abortion. According to a recent survey of atheists, 97% of them were pro-abortion!

What kind of person likes abortion? The kind of person who wants to be sexually active with no consequences, even if it means taking someone else’s life. The desire to do as they please and retreat from obligations to others is the key. Now dispensing with God and his obligations is not an unreasonable view if there is no evidence for God, but it does provide a motive for people to not look for that evidence if happiness is their main goal. When I discuss these issues with atheists, I find that no work has been done to read anything. Not even debates, where there are two sides. They don’t want to hear the case for Christian theism, and they work hard to avoid stumbling across it by accident, too.

God and the cosmic authority problem

Tough Questions Answered has a quote from Christian philosopher Paul Moser that I think is relevant:

It would be a strange, defective God who didn’t pose a serious cosmic authority problem for humans.  Part of the status of being God, after all, is that God has a unique authority, or lordship, over humans.  Since we humans aren’t God, the true God would have authority over us and would seek to correct our profoundly selfish ways.

So we’re not dealing with unbiased truth-seekers here. The goal might not always be sex, but let’s be honest. Who wants to have to spend time reading the Bible, praying, going to church and reading thick books by Stephen C. Meyer, Michael Licona and Hugh Ross so that we can answer questions? No one. Who wants to give up premarital sex so that we can create a stable marriage for children so they can grow up in a safe place where knowing God is natural and easy? No one. We just don’t want to have to do stuff for God, even if it’s good stuff. We don’t want to have build a life that is a testament to God’s existence and character, especially if it means that other people will think that we are weird and maybe even a bit mean. We want to do what we want to do instead, and be liked by other people.

That’s the real challenge of Christianity: setting aside what you wanted to do, and letting God be your customer, instead. You’d be surprised how many Christians aren’t comfortable with the idea of serving God and being viewed in a bad way by non-Christians. They aren’t OK with the self-sacrifice, and they are really not OK with the social disapproval. It’s hard to be chaste, and to be known to be chaste by your peers, for example. Much easier to just give in and do what everyone else is doing.

Let’s illustrate with C.S. Lewis

And here’s a relevant quote from C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” to illustrate:

You must have often wondered why the enemy [God] does not make more use of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the irresistible and the indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as his felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For his ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve…. Sooner or later he withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish…. He cannot “tempt” to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand…. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

— Uncle Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters

I’m not a big fan of Lewis, but I think he is onto something there. That’s really what the Christian life is like, and no wonder more people don’t choose it. Who wants to do your duty for God, as part of a relationship with him, in a universe that seems so unfair? It’s a tall order, and most people prefer to do their own thing instead of building something nice for God with their lives.


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