Tag Archives: Relativism

Do moral dilemmas undermine objective moral absolutes?

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.

Book review of R.C. Sproul’s “If there’s a God, why are there atheists?”

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

Brian Auten has a book review posted up at Apologetics 315.

The book is “If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists?”, by theologian R.C. Sproul. R.C. Sproul is one of my favorite theologians. The book in question has a very, very special place in my heart, because I think that it is one of the major reasons why I was able to resist pernicious ideas like religious pluralism and postmodernism for so long. Once you put on the glasses of Romans 1 and see for the first time what man is really doing with respect to God, you can never see things the same again. I’ll say more about this at the end, but let’s see what Brian wrote first.

The review

So often, you hear atheists complaining about religion is nothing but wish-fulfillment or some sort of crutch for people who are frightened by a variety of things. They think that God is invented to solve several problems. 1) how does the world work?, 2) is there meaning to suffering and evil?, 3) why should I be moral?, and 4) what will happen to me and my loved ones when I die?. On the atheistic view, God is just a crutch that people cling to out of weakness and ignorance. But is this really the case?

Sproul starts the book by investigating three atheists who sought to explain religious belief as a result of psychological factors.

Brian writes:

Before tackling the psychology of atheism, Sproul spends a chapter on the psychology of theism, from the perspective of Freud’s question “If there is no God, why is there religion?”11 What follows is an overview of various psychological explanations of theistic belief: Feuerbach’s “religion is a dream of the human mind.”12 Marx’s belief that religion is “due to the devious imagination of particular segment of mankind.”13 And Nietzche’s idea that “religion endures because weak men need it.”14 The author properly reiterates: “We must be careful to note that the above arguments can never be used as proof for the nonexistence of God. They can be useful for atheists who hear theists state that the only possible explanation for religion is the existence of God.”15 That being said, Sproul also reveals what these arguments presume:

Their arguments already presupposed the nonexistence of God. They were not dealing with the question, Is there a God? They were dealing with the question, Since there is no God, why is there religion?16

Sproul points out the weaknesses of each of these approaches and says “there are just as many arguments showing that unbelief has its roots in the psychological needs of man.”

Wow, could that really be true? What are the real reasons why people reject God? Does the Bible have anything to say about what those reasons are?

Brian cites Sproul’s contention:

The New Testament maintains that unbelief is generated not so much by intellectual causes as by moral and psychological ones. The problem is not that there is insufficient evidence to convince rational beings that there is a God, but that rational beings have a natural hostility to the being of God.

[…]Man’s desire is not that the omnipotent, personal Judeo-Christian God exist, but that He not exist.

In Romans 1:18-23, the apostle Paul explains what is really going on:

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,

19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

On this blog, I regularly present many, many arguments for theism in general, and Christian theism in particular:

Sproul explains why atheists cannot allow themselves to live according to the evidence that is presented to them:

The cumulative effect of this knowledge that is clearly seen is to leave men ‘without excuse.’ Herein lies the basis of the universal guilt of man. No one can claim ignorance of the knowledge of God. No one can cite insufficient evidence for not believing in God. Though people are not persuaded by the evidence, this does not indicate an insufficiency in the evidence, but rather an insufficiency in man.

[…]The basic stages of man’s reaction to God can be formulated by means of the categories of trauma, repression, and substitution.

[…]If God exists, man cannot be a law unto himself. If God exists, man’s will-to-power is destined to run head-on into the will of God.

And this is the force that is animating atheists today. They don’t want to be accountable to God in a relationship, no matter what the evidence is. They have to deny it, so that they can be free to get the benefits of a universe designed for them, without having to give any recognition or acknowledgement back. If they have to lie to themselves to deny the evidence, they will do it. Anything to insulate themselves from the Creator and Designer who reveals himself in Jesus Christ.

The rest of the book review, and the book, deals with explaining in detail how atheists respond to an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator/Designer. I encourage you to click through and read the whole book review. You can read the review, and the book, and then investigate for yourself whether atheists really are like that.

My survey of atheists

By the way, did you all see my survey of atheists that I did a while back? It’s relevant because one of the questions I asked to my volunteers was “How you begin to follow Christ if it suddenly became clear to you that Christianity was objectively true?”. I got some very strange responses that dovetail nicely with Sproul’s book.

Here are a few of the responses:

  • I would not follow. My own goals are all that I have, and all that I would continue to have in that unlikely situation. I would not yield my autonomy to anyone no matter what their authority to command me.
  • I would not follow, because God doesn’t want humans to act any particular way, and he doesn’t care what we do.
  • I would not follow. Head is spinning. Would go to physician to find out if hallucinating.
  • I hope I would be courageous enough to dedicate my life to rebellion against God.
  • I would not have to change anything unless forced to and all that would change is my actions not my values.  I would certainly balk at someone trying to force me to change my behavior as would you if you were at the mercy of a moral objectivist who felt that all moral goodness is codified in the Koran.
  • He would have to convince me that what he wants for me is what I want for me.

This is all part of my series discussing whether morality is rationally grounded by atheism.

Well Spent Journey did a similar survey of atheists, inspired by mine, and got this result on the relevant question:

12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true?

– Would follow (5)
– Wouldn’t follow (6)
Might follow the teachings of Jesus, but that isn’t Christianity (2)
– It would depend on how this truth was revealed (3)
– Christianity can’t be true (3)
– No answer given (4)

…What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?

– Adjusting wouldn’t be that difficult; would eagerly welcome knowing that Christianity was true (2)
– Praying, since it seems weird, creepy, and strange
– Trying to figure out how the Bible became so corrupted

– Trying to convince myself that the God of the Bible is deserving of worship (2)
– Don’t think it would be possible to adjust

– No clear response, or not applicable (16)

Yes, they really think like that! Just ask an atheist questions and you’ll see how “objective” they really are. Atheism is entirely psychological. It’s adopted in order to feel sufficient and to operate with autonomy, with the goal of self-centered pleasure-seeking above all. Evidence has nothing to do with it.

The psychological motivation of those who embrace postmodernism

Can a person be postmodern and a Christian? Not for long
Can a person be postmodern and a Christian? Not for long

Famous analytical philosopher John Searle has written a book “Mind, Language And Society: Philosophy In The Real World”, explaining what’s factually wrong with postmodernism. In the introduction, he explains what postmodernism is, and what motivates people to accept postmodernism.

He writes:

[…][W]hen we act or think or talk in the following sorts of ways we take a lot for granted: when we hammer a nail, or order a takeout meal from a restaurant, or conduct a lab experiment, or wonder where to go on vacation, we take the following for granted: there exists a real world that is totally independent of human beings and of what they think or say about it, and statements about objects and states of affairs in that world are true or false depending on whether things in the world really are the way we say they are. So, for example, if in pondering my vacation plans I wonder whether Greece is hotter in the summer than Italy, I simply take it for granted that there exists a real world containing places like Greece and Italy and that they have various temperatures. Furthermore, if I read in a travel book that the average summer temperature in Greece is hotter than in Italy, I know that what the book says will be true if and only if it really is hotter on average in the summer in Greece than in Italy. This is because I take it for granted that such statements are true only if there is something independent of the statement in virtue of which, or because of which, it is true.

[…]These two Background presuppositions have long histories and various famous names. The first, that there is a real world existing independently of us, I like to call “external realism.” “Realism,” because it asserts the existence of the real world, and “external” to distinguish it from other sorts of realism-for example, realism about mathematical objects (mathematical realism) or realism about ethical facts (ethical realism). The second view, that a statement is true if things in the world are the way the statement says they are, and false otherwise, is called “the correspondence theory of truth.” This theory comes in a lot of different versions, but the basic idea is that statements are true if they correspond to, or describe, or fit, how things really are in the world, and false if they do not.

The “correspondence theory of truth” is the view of truth assumed in books of the Bible whose genre is such that that they were intended by the authors to be taken literally, (with allowances for symbolism, figures of speech, metaphors, hyperbole, etc.).

But what about the postmodernists, who seek to deny the objectivity of external reality?

More Searle:

Thinkers who wish to deny the correspondence theory of truth or the referential theory of thought and language typically find it embarrassing to have to concede external realism. Often they would rather not talk about it at all, or they have some more or less subtle reason for rejecting it. In fact, very few thinkers come right out and say that there is no such thing as a real world existing absolutely, objectively, and totally independently of us. Some do. Some come right out and say that the so-called real world is a “social construct.”

What is behind the denial of objective reality, and statements about external reality that are warranted by evidence?

It is not easy to get a fix on what drives contemporary antirealism, but if we had to pick out a thread that runs through the wide variety of arguments, it would be what is sometimes called “perspectivism.” Perspectivism is the idea that our knowledge of reality is never “unmediated,” that it is always mediated by a point of view, by a particular set of predilections, or, worse yet by sinister political motives, such as an allegiance to a political group or ideology. And because we can never have unmediated knowledge of the world, then perhaps there is no real world, or perhaps it is useless to even talk about it, or perhaps it is not even interesting.

Searle is going to refute anti-realism in the rest of the book, but here is his guess at what is motivating the anti-realists:

I have to confess, however, that I think there is a much deeper reason for the persistent appeal of all forms of antirealism, and this has become obvious in the twentieth century: it satisfies a basic urge to power. It just seems too disgusting, somehow, that we should have to be at the mercy of the “real world.” It seems too awful that our representations should have to be answerable to anything but us. This is why people who hold contemporary versions of antirealism and reject the correspondence theory of truth typically sneer at the opposing view. 

[…]I don’t think it is the argument that is actually driving the impulse to deny realism. I think that as a matter of contemporary cultural and intellectual history, the attacks on realism are not driven by arguments, because the arguments are more or less obviously feeble, for reasons I will explain in detail in a moment. Rather, as I suggested earlier, the motivation for denying realism is a kind of will to power, and it manifests itself in a number of ways. In universities, most notably in various humanities disciplines, it is assumed that, if there is no real world, then science is on the same footing as the humanities. They both deal with social constructs, not with independent realities. From this assumption, forms of postmodernism, deconstruction, and so on, are easily developed, having been completely turned loose from the tiresome moorings and constraints of having to confront the real world. If the real world is just an invention-a social construct designed to oppress the marginalized elements of society-then let’s get rid of the real world and construct the world we want. That, I think, is the real driving psychological force behind antirealism at the end of the twentieth century.

Now, I’ll go one step further than Searle.

People, from the Fall, have had the desire to step into the place of God. It’s true that we creatures exist in a universe created and designed by God. But, there is a way to work around the fact that God made the universe and the laws that the universe runs on, including logic, mathematics and natural laws. And that way is to deny logic, mathematics and natural laws. Postmodernists simply deny that there is any way to construct rational arguments and support the premises with evidence from the real world. That way, they imagine, they are free to escape a God-designed world, including a God-designed specification for how they ought to live. The postmoderns deny the reliable methods of knowing about the God-created reality because logic and evidence can be used to point to God’s existence, God’s character, and God’s actions in history.

And that’s why there is this effort to make reality “optional” and perspectival. Everyone can be their own God, and escape any accountability to the real God – the God who is easily discovered through the use of logic and evidence. I believe that this is also behind the rise of atheists, who feign allegiance to logic and science, but then express “skepticism” about the origin of the universe, the fine-tuning of the universe, objective morality, the minimal facts concerning the historical Jesus, and other undeniables.