Sunday, January 16, 2005

Moral Absolutism, Again

In this post from late last year I argued that public debates about moral absolutism vs. moral relativism really miss the point. At issue is not whether moral assertions are objective or subjective. The issue is how we go about defending moral assertions.

Weighing in on the other side is Dennis Prager, in this column over at Town Hall. We consider it in full:


For those who subscribe to Judeo-Christian values, right and wrong, good and evil, are derived from God, not from reason alone, nor from the human heart, the state or through majority rule.

Though most college-educated Westerners never hear the case for the need for God-based morality because of the secular outlook that pervades modern education and the media, the case is both clear and compelling: If there is no transcendent source of morality (morality is the word I use for the standard of good and evil), “good” and “evil” are subjective opinions, not objective realities.


Prager, in his role as right-wing crackpot, finds himself unable to make a case for anything without also throwing in some stereotypes and slurs. Note the casual implication that having a college education clouds your judgement when it comes to moral clarity.

Also note that he does not actually make any argument for believing (1) That God exists or (2) That He is perfectly good or (3) That we can know His will on moral questions. He merely asserts that the non-existence of God would have some unpleasant consequences.

Furthermore, the only way theism leads to moral objectivity is if you simply define morality to be synonymous with what God wants. Finding it plausible to make such a definition requires you to make all the baseless assumptions I described in the previous paragraph.

This is precisely the point I was making in my previous post. Any time you reason about anything you must begin with certain unproved assumptions. For Prager and his ilk, those unproved assumptions revolve around God's existence and character. For an atheist those assumptions usually involve certain assumptions about a person's obligations to society and his fellow human beings. Since we know that society actually exists and since we know what unpleasant effects occur when people ignore their basic obligations to one another, I find my foundation rather more solid than Prager's.

And the fact is that regardless of your personal beliefs there is a pragmatic problem to be solved. On the one hand people have to live together. On the other, people don't agree on whether God exists, or what He wants from us if does exist. But everyone has a stake in promoting a stable society. My foundation is based on principles that everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, can get behind. Prager's, by contrast, are meaningful only to those who share his beliefs.


In other words, if there is no God who says, “Do not murder” (“Do not kill” is a mistranslation of the Hebrew which, like English, has two words for homicide), murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact. There are no moral “facts” if there is no God; there are only moral opinions.


Again, there are no moral facts even with God, unless you begin with the groundless assumptions I described earlier. And, also again, as a practical matter is makes no difference whether morality is objective or subjective. All that matters is what rules you can persuade people to agree to live under.


Years ago, I debated this issue at Oxford with Jonathan Glover, currently the professor of ethics at King's College, University of London, and one of the leading atheist moralists of our time.
Because he is a man of rare intellectual honesty, he acknowledged that without God, morality is subjective. He is one of the few secularists who do.


Since Prager has chosen to be repetitive, perhaps I can be forgiven for following suit. Moral assertions have to rest on some foundation. To the extent that that foundation is arbitrary, moral assertions are subjective. That is true regardless of whether your chosen foundation involves the needs of society or a mess of dubious assumptions about God and his nature.


This is the reason for the moral relativism -- “What I think is right is right for me, what you think is right is right for you” -- that pervades modern society. The secularization of society is the primary reason vast numbers of people believe, for example, that “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter”; why the best educated were not able say that free America was a more moral society than the totalitarian Soviet Union; why, in short, deep moral confusion afflicted the 20th century and continues in this century.


Let us note in passing that Prager, once again, feels the need to throw in the slur about higher education clouding one's moral judgment.

“Moral relativism” as used by Prager in the opening sentence here, is a red herring. No one really believes that morality is strictly a matter of personal preference. The fact is that nearly everyone, from the most hard-core atheist to the most extreme religious fundamentlaist, seems to agree on all the really important moral issues that arise in day-to-day life. Sure, there's disagreement about, say, abortion and homosexuality. But when it comes to murder, rape, theft, assault and similar issues there is no disagreement at all. That shows pretty clearly that a particular view of God's will is not necessary to make sound moral judgments. The cartoon version of relativism Prager is describing does not pervade society, becuase it does not exist at all.

I'm afraid the paragraph goes downhill from there. The statement “One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter” is a simple statement of fact about how different people can come to different conclusions about a situation. After all, the terrorists we are currently at war with are not morally confused secularists. They have moral clarity in spades, and that morality comes from their understanding of God's will.

As for the best educated not being able to say that the US was a more moral soceity than the old USSR, Prager can shove it. That's just a worthless stereotype, one that has no basis in reality.


That is why The New York Times, the voice of secular moral relativism, was so repulsed by President Ronald Reagan's declaration that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire.” The secular world -- especially its left -- fears and rejects the language of good and evil because it smacks of religious values and violates their moral relativism. It is perhaps the major difference between America and Europe. As a New York Times article on European-American differences noted last year, “Americans are widely regarded as more comfortable with notions of good and evil, right and wrong, than Europeans. . . . ” No wonder. America is a Judeo-Christian society; Europe (and the American Democratic Party) is largely secular.


Every time you think Prager's hit rock bottom, he finds a way to sink even lower. First he arbitrarily declares that the New York Times is the voice of secular moral relativism. Then he caricatures their antipathy toward Reagan by describing it as the product of moral relativism. In reality they believed that Reagan was engaging in poor diplomacy, not poor moral reasoning.

Attributing European discomfort with the language of good and evil to their secularism (an assertion for which Prager provides no evidence, incidentally) displays a level of arrogance and cluelessness I thought was beyond even Prager. Dogmatic assertions about one's own moral superiority relative to neighboring society's are the sort of thing that leads to wars. Europe has had enough wars faught on its soil to be justly suspicious of such talk. Prager, who works unburdened by any concern for the practical consequences of his belief, merely ignores such pedestrain concerns.


In the late 1970s, in a public interview in Los Angeles, I asked one of the leading secular liberal thinkers of the past generation, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., if he would say that the United States was a morally superior society to that of the Soviet Union. Even when I repeated the question, and clarified that I readily acknowledged the existence of good individuals in the Soviet Union and bad ones in America, he refused to do so.


Ye olde proof by anecdote.


A major reason for the left's loathing of George W. Bush is his use of moral language -- such as in his widely condemned description of the regimes of North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” These people reject the central Judeo-Christian value of the existence of objective good and evil and our obligation to make such judgments. Secularism has led to moral confusion, which in turn has led to moral paralysis.


No, the problem with Bush is not his use of moral language. It is that he, and his fawning admirers like Prager, believe that blunt moral assertions are all that is required. The practical consequences of Bush's “axis of evil” comment, followed by the war in Iraq, are that now Iran and North Korea are doing everything they can to obtain nuclear weapons. When an enemy nation describes three countries as evil, and immediately thereafter overthrows the government of one of them, what would you do? But the chest-pounding right has no time for such petty, practical consdierations. They were too busy being morally superior.

The same thing is clear in Iraq. They are evil and we are good. What more justification of the war was necessary? Anyone who raised concerns about the practicality of achieving a good result in Iraq were easily painted as morally confused cretins who just didn't get it. In reality, they were the only ones who did get it.

And that is the danger of Prager's brain-dead moral absolutism. People like Prager want to be able to make assertions and have that be the end of it. They believe that merely by asserting that God is on their side, they have all the justification they need to do whatever they wish to do.


If you could not call the Soviet Union an “evil empire” or the Iranian, North Korean and Iraqi regimes an “evil axis,” you have rendered the word “evil” useless. And indeed it is not used in sophisticated secular company -- except in reference to those who do use it (usually religious Christians and Jews).


Yes, of course those societies were and are evil. Who, exactly, thinks otherwise? Just recognize that merely diagnosing them as evil provides little help in determining sound policy.


Is abortion morally wrong? To the secular world, the answer is “It's between a woman and her physician.” There is no clearer expression of moral relativism: Every woman determines whether abortion is moral. On the other hand, to the individual with Judeo-Christian values, it is not between anyone and anyone else. It is between society and God. Even among religious people who differ in their reading of God's will, it is still never merely “between a woman and her physician.”


This paragraph is so stupid I hardly no where to start. The statement that the decision to have an abortion is between a woman and her physician is not a reflection of moral relativism. It is a statement that it is morally wrong for the government to take control of a woman's body for nine months and force her to remain pregnant against her will. It is the pro-life view that is immoral. Saying that the decision to have an abortion lies with the woman does not mean that it is morally right for some women and morally wrong for others. It is saying the decision lies with the woman and not with the government (or with Prager's interpretation of God's will, for that matter).

And since Prager is admitting here that religious people often disagree about God's will, it seems to me he is saying that the decision to have an abortion is between the individuals in a society and their interpretation of God's will. How is that an improvement over “it's between a woman and her doctor?”


And to those who counter these arguments for God-based morality with the question, “Whose God?” the answer is the God who revealed His moral will in the Old Testament, which Jews and Christians -- and no other people -- regard as divine revelation.


It doesn't get much clearer than that. If we adopt Prager's view of the world we are simply giving up all hope of persuading people about moral assertions. Prager says we should derive our morality from the Old testament. Why? Because he says so. When confronted with a society who views God's will differently there is no hope for resolution other than war.

The danger society faces comes not from people who recognize nuance and grey area about moral questions. It comes from the brain-dead right, well-represented by Prager, who have become so arrogant that they no longer find it necessary to make arguments in defense of what they believe. You either accept their view of the world or you are a bad person.

Prgaer goes on for one more paragraph, but I think that's enough for now.

12 Comments:

At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Prager seems to forget that Christianity itself is built on the concept of mercy. Mercy, of course, is a form of relativism, in practice -- "it doesn't matter that you broke the law, Jesus paid your fine, did your time, etc., etc." Prager and fundamentalists will claim that's not the case, but their claims are denial. Heck, the grace-and-mercy part is what gets most Christians through the church door in the first place.

Second, Prager doesn't hesitate to resort to moral relativism in fact if he thinks it helps his pet causes. For example, creationists argue that, because so many believe in creationism, it should be taught in science classes even though there isn't a like of scientific support for it. This is, at its base, a relativistic argument -- 'creationism is just as good as real science, and if enough of us believe in it you don't have a right to call it wrong.'

Prager should spend more time figuring out what morality is before he takes to sniping at what he misconstrues to be moral relativism.

 
At 7:11 AM, Blogger David said...

The statement:

Prager, in his role as right-wing crackpot, finds himself unable to make a case for anything without also throwing in some stereotypes and slurs.takes cajones the size of Brazil. At the very least, it should get you red-marked by a freshman writing teacher.

You are arguing about something that is manifestly true.

Morality based on society is not absolute, because society changes it's mind. One day gay marriage is repulsive, the next day it is acceptable.

God, being immutable, provides an unchanging standard. Morality based on God's law is absolute.

From there you can say you don't believe in God, or you believe in a different god with different standards, etc. Or you can point out the practical problem that people with different views have to live together. But you cannot deny the moral absolutism of one and the relativism of the other.

You wrote: Also note that he does not actually make any argument for believing (1) That God exists or (2) That He is perfectly good or (3) That we can know His will on moral questions. He merely asserts that the non-existence of God would have some unpleasant consequences.

Furthermore, the only way theism leads to moral objectivity is if you simply define morality to be synonymous with what God wants. Finding it plausible to make such a definition requires you to make all the baseless assumptions I described in the previous paragraph.
So the only way theism (believing in God) leads to moral objectivity is if you define morality to be what God wants (well, duh!) but then, that would require you assume that (1) God exists. (You didn’t even use “and” in your list of three assumptions, you used “or.” You can’t have theism based on the assumption that God exists? BRILLIANT!

 
At 12:52 PM, Blogger Jason said...

David-

I'm afraid your reply to my essay makes little sense. I said very clearly that if you make a load of assumptions about morality and about God's nature, then you can plausibly claim that there are objective moral standards. But since those assumptions are both totally groundless and held only by people of particular religious persuasions, they do not provide a solid foundation for morality.

As for your second paragraph, I can't imagine what your point is.

 
At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The practical consequences of Bush's “axis of evil” comment, followed by the war in Iraq, are that now Iran and North Korea are doing everything they can to obtain nuclear weapons. When an enemy nation describes three countries as evil, and immediately thereafter overthrows the government of one of them, what would you do?I've started reading this blog only fairly recently, and have enjoyed it thoroughly so far. But this comment really disappointed me, since it displays a serious lack of perspective or critical thought.

Bush first used the phrase "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in January of 2002. To describe the attempt of North Korea and Iran as a response to this speech is simply ill-informed and ludicrous.

Focusing on just North Korea for a moment, do you even know why the 1994 Agreed Framework was set up? Are you seriously suggesting that North Korea did not have nuclear ambitions before Bush uttered that phrase?

To portray North Korea as some sort of victimized state, simply reacting to the moralizing of the George Bush is a warped, dangerous, and frankly, quite stupid foreign policy perspective.

I was living in Japan in 1998 when North Korea test fired "accidentally" a Taepodong two-stage missile over mainland Japan. Japan is currently embroiled in a controversy with North Korea regarding Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by the North Korean government for use as spies. Is North Korea just responding to Japan's moralizing?

To attribute North Korea's nuclear ambitions as a response to Bush's axis of evil speech is to misrepresent the nature and intent of their government, to misrepresent history. It is a serious lapse, and one I hope you will address and correct, as I would like to continue to enjoy reading this blog, and I await to see how you handle the response.

 
At 4:33 PM, Blogger Jason said...

I'm sorry if I disappointed you but I stand by what I said. Happily, I did not say that the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea began with Bush's speech. What I do say is that both nations, but especially North Korea, have stepped up their efforts to obtain nucelar weapons in response to Bush's foreign policy. Surely you're not disagreeing with that?

I don't see how anything I wrote can be construed as portraying North Korea as a victimized state. I am simply making the obvious point that from their perspective it is reasonable to perceive a threat from the U.S. I am criticizing Bush's diplomatic skills, not his moral judgment.

 
At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some people should take a philosophy class. There's a rich tradition of ethics and moral philosophy going all the way back to Socrates, at least, and yet here we are in the year 2005 and we've got people like Dennis Prager and this David fellow in the comments proudly displaying their utter ignorance of this tradition.

The divine command theory of ethics is, in fact, one of the least interesting and most thoroughly debunked ideas in the whole field. At any rate, if you can't imagine any other basis for ethical and moral judgments than God's will, then you've got a lot of reading to do. If you want to mount an informed defense of the divine command theory, fine, but if you want to be taken seriously it's not a good idea to act as if it's the only theory of ethics or morality that anyone's ever thought of.

 
At 7:51 PM, Blogger David said...

At any rate, if you can't imagine any other basis for ethical and moral judgments than God's will, then you've got a lot of reading to do.Man, did you ever miss the boat. I wrote

God, being immutable, provides an unchanging standard. Morality based on God's law is absolute.It is true that I am not trained in philosophy, my Ph.D. being in nuclear physics. But I do know enough that one should argue with what someone says and not to put words in their mouth. Where did I say there is no other basis? I only said that it is absolute--meaning if you base it on God you have a system that is unchanging, as opposed to if you base in on the current majority view.

I don't know if you know philosophy or not, but in logic and rhetoric you are deficient.

 
At 11:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When you say the practical consequence of Bush's remarks are that now North Korea is doing everything it can to acquire nukes, that is misleading at best. Perhaps you didn't mean to, but it certainly implies that they *weren't* trying their best to acquire nukes before 2002. I simply don't like the framing of North Korea's aggressive, militaristic ambitions as a direct response to Bush policy. It strikes me as a naive misrepresentation.

As for his actual foreign policy, what would you have done differently? I'm not a huge fan of Bush, but I think he gets an unfair rap on foreign policy. I personally think that with respect to NK, he has made the right moves, refusing to engage in 1-on-1 agreements (which NK could easily breach and blame on the US). By insisting on 6-way talks with their neighbors, it will be much more difficult for NK to weasel out of any agreements they make (if they ever do). Besides, it is a more multilateral approach, and if anything, China, South Korea, and Japan have much more at stake here than we do, so it only makes sense for them to be at the table.

 
At 11:50 AM, Blogger Jason said...

Anonymous-

I apologize if I was unclear in my original post. I certainly agree that NK and Iran were trying to obtain nuclear weapons long before Bush came on the scene. But NK in particular has become more aggressive since Bush took office, and that renewed aggressiveness is certainly attributable to Bush's rhetoric and his Iraq policy. I don't see how American interests have been advanced by deliberately antagonizing the North Koreans.

David-

Your point about God-based morality being absolute follows only if you assume that God is incapable of changing his mind on moral questions. But that contradicts the idea that God is omnipotent.

Furthermore, I could argue that the needs of society provide an unchanging standard for morality. Of course, it is possible for people to disagree on the needs of society or large numbers of people might be mistaken about what sorts of behavior best promote a stable society, but you admitted earlier that similar problems exist with God-based morality.

As I said in my initial post, the important question is how to defend moral assertions. Sure, by making arbitrary assumptions about God and morality you can devise a system in which moral standards cna be said to be absolute. But you can make other arbitrary definitions and assumptions without God and come up with the same thing. Absolutely nothing is gained by doing that, however.

Going back to Prager's original column, I think that Prager wants to be able to assert that things like abortion and gay marriage are morally wrong and not be challenged on it. His interpretation of the Bible tells him those things are wrong, and he thinks that should be the end of it. I find that attitude dangerous.

 
At 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er, David? Remember Dennis Prager? The guy whose column this whole discussion is about? He wrote:

"For those who subscribe to Judeo-Christian values, right and wrong, good and evil, are derived from God, not from reason alone, nor from the human heart, the state or through majority rule."

To me this sure sounds like a guy who can't imagine any other basis for morality than divine will.

At any rate, I apologize if I misconstrued your rather incoherent comments. I'll try again. You seem to believe that morality is either God-based, hence absolute, or it's based on majority rule. You don't seem to recognize any other possibilities, which is kind of sad, because I'd hate to think that people like Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill wasted their lives.

To me it's just kind of annoying to see people pontificating about their cartoonish views on morality without the slightest nod to the many thinkers throughout history who have addressed these same questions with infinitely greater insight and depth. I don't know if you're one of those people, but Dennis Prager sure is.

 
At 8:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Murder is wrong." Gee, you wouldn't think that anyone but a moral relativist would disagree with that, would you? But in fact, all you have to do to justify murder is what every God-based regime in history has done: redefine the term to exclude the person you want to kill. The Spanish Inquisition murdered hundreds of people... well, no, they "executed heretics", and that's not murder. Anti-abortion terrorists have murdered doctors and clinic workers... well, no, they're "protecting innocent life", and that's not murder. The Islamic terrorists murdered thousands of people in the WTC attack... well, no, they were "doing the will of Allah", and that's not murder. Claiming God as your moral authority doesn't give you any immunity to moral relativism; it just hides it under a different label.

 
At 12:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I only said that it is absolute--meaning if you base it on God you have a system that is unchanging, as opposed to if you base in on the current majority view.

But, it's not "unchanging." Precisely because people appeal to different gods and different beliefs makes an appeal to God for morality relative. Sure, within one person's belief system, they may see their morals as "absolute." But, it is not absolute in the universal sense.

Once upon a time, you could find people telling us that their God did, in fact, support (via "His Word") such things as slavery and the withholding of pain medicine from women in labor. No doubt, a sense of "right" and "wrong" appeared absolute (and unchanging) to such people.

Yet today, you will find very few individuals who cling to such "absolutes." In fact, it could be argued that the increasing secularization of society is what caused religious absolutists to re-assess their morals so that they were in-line with (increasing secular) society at large.

 

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