Intelligent Design

Theism, atheism and morality

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As I see it, the current discussion about the relation between theism, atheism and morality is bedeviled by two false and often unexamined assumptions.

First, it is assumed that if an act is self-evidently wrong, then that counts against a theistic account of morality.

Second, it is assumed that if a theistic account of morality is correct, moral injunctions must be derived from the fact that God exists.

In support of the first assumption, it is sometimes argued that if an action (such as torturing babies) is self-evidently wrong, then not only theists but also atheists can recognize it as wrong – in which case, we can know that the action is wrong without having to invoke God’s will in order to support our claim.

But we might still need to posit the existence of God in order to explain the fact that there are actions that are morally right and wrong, even if we can easily recognize which acts are right and wrong without first having to ask what God wants.

The second assumption envisages moral injunctions as if they were Divine decrees. But moral norms can presuppose the existence of God, without necessarily being decreed by God.

Let’s suppose that some actions are self-evidently wrong, and let us also grant that not only theists but also atheists can know that these acts are wrong. Before the atheists start smugly congratulating themselves for arriving at a knowledge of these moral norms without having to posit God, they should ask themselves this simple question:

Isn’t it a very startling fact that there are normative statements about the world which are true?

Norms aren’t just descriptive; they are also prescriptive. If norms are part of the “warp-and-woof” of reality, then we can actually formulate true statements about what beings of a certain kind (e.g. humans) ought to do and ought not to do.

This is very, very odd. Where on earth do these “oughts” come from? Are they grounded in individuals’ wants, perhaps?

They certainly don’t come from the wants of people who have moral obligations. If they did, then first of all, our having those obligations would be contingent upon our wanting certain goods, which would seriously weaken the claim that moral norms containing these “oughts” are self-evident, as people want very different things; and secondly, we could only know the truth of these moral norms via an indirect process of introspection, rather than knowing them immediately, as we claim to do.

Do these “oughts” spring from the wants of the subjects towards whom we have these obligations – in other words, the wants of “morally significant others”? Again, the answer has to be no. If that were the case, then the applicability of moral norms relating to these subjects would rest upon the (contingent) fact that they always want certain goods (which is empirically doubtful). It would also follow that we could only know the truth of moral norms relating to these “morally significant others” by first figuring out what they wanted – which conflicts with the common experience we have of knowing these norms immediately, and without having to inquire about anyone’s wants.

Let me give a simple example. Let’s suppose that a baby is in hospital, because of breathing-related problems. A Bird VIP Infant ventilator (like the one illustrated above, courtesy of Brian Hall and Wikipedia) moves breathable air into and out of the baby’s lungs, as the baby is physically unable to breathe. You’re a nurse on night duty in the hospital’s neonatal ward. You suddenly notice that one of the tubes that was connected to the baby has fallen out. The baby is still asleep. What do you do? It’s a no-brainer. You re-insert the tube, of course! You didn’t have to ask yourself what you wanted, or what the baby wanted. That’s because you already knew what the baby needed.

Are moral norms grounded in the needs of others, as opposed to their wants? This makes a lot more sense. But this answer does not go far enough. What makes a need normative, after all?

Needs are normative, insofar as they relate to an individual’s thriving, or flourishing. Put simply, when an individual’s needs are not met, it fails to thrive. Moral norms, then, ultimately rest on facts relating to individuals’ conditions of thriving.

Now, in order to ascertain what makes an individual thrive, we need to know what kind of thing it is – in other words, what its nature is. The nature of a dog, which needs meat and daily exercise, is obviously very different from that of a sloth, which needs neither.

The conclusion we seem to have reached is this. A creature of a certain kind has conditions of thriving, which are based on the built-in ends (or if you will, the telos) that characterizes beings of that kind. These built-in ends are the foundations of moral norms relating to individuals of that kind.

What that means is that teleology is a basic and irreducible feature of the cosmos. That in itself is a very odd fact. There are classes (or kinds) of beings which cannot be characterized in descriptive terms alone. In order to adequately characterize them, we need to refer to their built-in ends – in other words, we need to use prescriptive language.

An atheist may freely acknowledge that this is an odd and somewhat striking fact about the world, without feeling the slightest need to give up their atheism. But there’s more.

The mere fact that creatures of a certain kind have built-in ends could never serve as an adequate foundation for moral norms relating to those creatures. “What’s that got to do with us?” you might reasonably ask. “How do you derive a moral obligation on our part from the existence of a frustrated end, or an unmet need, on the part of some other individual – especially if that individual happens to be of a different kind from ourselves? Why should we care?”

There’s more. One could ask: “What’s to stop us from re-designing the nature of living things, and altering their built-in ends in a way that suits us?”

Here’s an example of what I mean. The philosopher Bernard Rollin has proposed that we should render food animals and experimental animals decerebrate (and thus incapable of pain) through genetic engineering. A decerebrate animal would now be a different kind of being, with a different (non-conscious) kind of functioning. We could enjoy the taste of meat, and no-one would be hurt. And yet, the idea of altering the basic nature of animals in such a fashion strikes most people as self-evidently wrong. But why?

There’s more. Someone might ask: “What’s to stop us from re-designing our psyches, so that the suffering of other needy individuals – especially individuals of a different kind from ourselves – no longer bothers us?” This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. According to a recent BBC news report, scientists writing in Brain magazine are claiming that psychopaths are capable of experiencing empathy – but unlike the rest of us, they can switch it on and off at will (Brain (2013) 136 (8): 2550-2562, doi: 10.1093/brain/awt190). What if we could make ourselves like that? Would it be wrong to re-fashion ourselves like that? If so, why?

The only way to put a stop to this line of questioning and to close the Pandora’s box that it opens is to posit that our own thriving, as human beings, is essentially linked with that of other beings, and that for us to stunt either their natures (e.g. by depriving sentient animals of the ability to feel) or our own (e.g. by making ourselves less empathetic) is to do irreparable harm to ourselves, irrespective of what other advantages we might gain (e.g. longevity or intelligence). Only if our well-being is essentially tied to that of other individuals – and even to that of other kinds of creatures – does it follow that we are bound to treat the built-in ends of creatures as morally normative. For if there are no essential ties of this kind between our natures and those of our fellow human beings and other morally significant creatures, then we are indeed free to redesign ourselves – and other creatures – as we wish.

Now, if atheistic readers of this post have followed my argument so far, they should be going green around the gills by now. It was odd enough that we live in a universe in which “ought” is just as basic as “is”, for living creatures. Now it turns out that our own well-being is so irrevocably tied to that of other morally significant beings in such a way that unless we respect their built-in ends, we will only end up harming ourselves.

In a godless universe, this would be an extremely fortuitous fact. We should not expect “Mother Nature” to have arranged things so perfectly: after all, Nature is blind and wholly lacking in intelligence. But in a theistic universe, this would be precisely the sort of thing we would expect a Deity to do, in order to curb the pretensions of any creatures (such as ourselves) that might grow “too big for their boots” and succumb to pride, in presuming to alter the plan laid down by the Author of Nature.

The upshot of the foregoing discussion is that although we can often know the content of our moral obligations immediately, without having to invoke God, and although these moral obligations are more than mere decrees that God might make or revoke at will, the fact that we have moral obligations, and that we are ethically bound to respect the norms built into Nature itself, can only be satisfactorily explained with reference to God.

It follows that if there are self-evident moral truths of the kind I have described above, then there must be a God, after all.

51 Replies to “Theism, atheism and morality

  1. 1
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    I was following this line of thought perfectly well until we got to this part:

    In a godless universe, this would be an extremely fortuitous fact. We should not expect “Mother Nature” to have arranged things so perfectly: after all, Nature is blind and wholly lacking in intelligence.

    I don’t understand why the interdependent flourishing of all living things on earth is supposed to be better explained under theism than under naturalism. I don’t want to get into whether or not there’s an available theistic explanation of this interdependent flourishing — I’ll happily accept that there is. What I don’t understand is why the naturalist cannot also explain it just as well.

  2. 2
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    Vincent, I’d be extremely interested in hearing a Thomistic response to Owen Flanagan’s “Ethics Naturalized: Ethics as Human Ecology“.

  3. 3
    Dick says:

    No one denies that both the atheist and the theist have a strong sense that, say, kindness is morally better than cruelty. The question is, how do we come by that sense?

    If it’s source is impersonal chance and physics, then why should we think that our sense that kindness is morally better is anything other than an artifact of our evolution? Why think it is anything other than a subjective preference, a taste, lacking any objective ground?

    Moreover, how can blind, impersonal processes impose upon us a duty to value kindness over cruelty? Why not simply regard the sense that kindness is morally superior to cruelty as an illusion?

    Only if the sense that kindness is better than cruelty is grounded in a transcendent, personal moral authority can that sense actually reflect an objective truth, and only such an authority can impose upon us a moral obligation to bind ourselves by it.

    Absent such an authority moral discourse is nothing more than sharing our aesthetic preferences and opinions.

  4. 4

    vjtorley,

    Nicely done and a great read. I would add that how we should treat other entities (according to their needs/ends) has a contextual component that allows us the mental/physical capacity/tools by which we can aspire to correctly understand and undertake our moral obligations. The entire cosmos, mental and physical, must be integrated in structural hand-in-glove order that allows for the immediate recognition of self-evident moral obligations, the implementation thereof, and the capacity to reason through moral quandaries and gray areas.

    I would also note that how we treat other entities is not the focus (purpose) that informs “oughts”; IOW, our purpose in aiding the “thriving” of others is not “to aid the thriving of others”, but rather to pursue whatever the ultimate final cause is, because all entities are entwined in the overall cosmic purpose.

    Also, I don’t consider morality to be “decreed” by god, but rather that the purpose of the universe “is” defined by what god is. God cannot change what is good, or decree an evil to be good. God is the purpose that defines what good necessarily is; God doesn’t go about “decreeing” it. I also hold that our moral obligations extend well beyond how we treat other living beings, since all things in the cosmos are created with a final cause.0

  5. 5
    Barb says:

    The issue is not whether atheists can be moral people; they obviously are. The issue is where do they derive their morality from? If the answer is reduced to simple physics and biochemistry, then we might have a problem.

    In the article “Casuistry” the Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition) explains that morality “has sometimes been thought of as an outward law, sometimes as an inward disposition. . . . Believers in law have put their trust in authority or logic; while believers in disposition chiefly look to our instinctive faculties—conscience, common-sense or sentiment.” Extremes in both positions existed when Jesus and the apostles walked the earth.

    According to classical scholar Samuel H. Butcher. “Among the Greeks . . . no system of doctrine and observance, no manuals containing authoritative rules of morality, were ever transmitted in documentary form. . . . Unvarying rules petrified action.” As to the Romans, the Encyclopaedia Britannica says: “Cicero and Seneca took common-sense as their guide. They decided each problem on its merits, looking more to the spirit than to the letter.”

    In later centuries, too, both extremes had their advocates, even among persons called Christians. The Jesuits were noted for stressing a morality based on innumerable Church laws. After the Reformation, Protestantism emphasized individualism and conscience, which has led to the current view known as “situation ethics,” popularized by Episcopalian Dr. Joseph Fletcher. The National Observer reports: “Dr. Fletcher has spelled out a controversial manifesto of individual freedom and responsibility, based on an ethic of brotherly love, which he says should free modern man from rigid, archaic rules and codes like the ‘Ten Commandments.’ . . . With love as the only guide, then, abortion, premarital sex, divorce, . . . and other conventional wrongs become morally acceptable to Dr. Fletcher in some situations.”

    “Ethics” has been described as “the study of questions about what is morally right and wrong.” (Collins Cobuild English Dictionary) Author Eric J. Easton says: “‘Ethics’ and ‘morality’ have the same root meaning. The first is Greek (ethikos) and the second Latin (moralis) in origin, and both refer to the authority of custom and tradition.”

    The famed psychiatrist Jung stated: “The individual who is not anchored in God can offer no resistance on his own resources to the physical and moral blandishments of the world. For this he needs the evidence of inner, transcendent experience which alone can protect him from the otherwise inevitable submersion in the mass.”

    “It is impossible,” says syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, “to have a moral community or nation without faith in God, because everything rapidly comes down to ‘me,’ and ‘me’ alone is meaningless. . . . When ‘me’ becomes the measure of all things—at the expense of God, of church, of family and of the accepted norms of civil and civic human behavior—we are in trouble.”

    I happen to agree with the columnist quoted above. Morality must have objective standards of right and wrong in order for it to flourish in civilized society.

  6. 6
    5for says:

    Barb, where do you derive your morality from? Specifically.

  7. 7
    5for says:

    Dick, how do you personally come by the sense that kindness is better than cruelty?

  8. 8
    Dick says:

    5for asked (7): “Dick, how do you personally come by the sense that kindness is better than cruelty?”

    My own view is that this is a conviction that’s “written on the heart” by a transcendent, personal moral authority; as is the corollary that we have an objective obligation to be kind.

    If I’m wrong about this, if the sense that kindness is better than cruelty (or selflessness is better than selfishness, or that torturing children is wrong)is nothing more than the product of the vagaries of a purposeless, materialistic evolution of the species, if moral sentiments are nothing more than a particular sequence of chemical reactions in the brain, then there is no moral better or worse, nor are there any objective moral duties.

    After all, how can an impersonal process like evolution, or a particular arrangement of atoms and molecules, in any way obligate us to do anything?

  9. 9
    bornagain77 says:

    I hold that morality is a real, objective, tangible, part of reality that is deeply embedded within us. Embedded to core of our being, i.e. our soul which God has ‘knit together’. As is noted in this study:

    Moral evaluations of harm are instant and emotional, brain study shows – November 29, 2012
    Excerpt: People are able to detect, within a split second, if a hurtful action they are witnessing is intentional or accidental, new research on the brain at the University of Chicago shows.
    http://medicalxpress.com/news/.....brain.html

    Of course atheists will claim that this instantaneous moral compass, contra the ‘survival of the fittest’ mantra just so happened to evolve to be instant and emotional (despite the fact that cannot even explain how a single neuron arose). But the following study goes deeper and shows hurtful, violent actions, are embedded on a ‘non-local’, i.e. spiritual, level.

    Quantum Consciousness – Time Flies Backwards? – Stuart Hameroff MD
    Excerpt: Dean Radin and Dick Bierman have performed a number of experiments of emotional response in human subjects. The subjects view a computer screen on which appear (at randomly varying intervals) a series of images, some of which are emotionally neutral, and some of which are highly emotional (violent, sexual….). In Radin and Bierman’s early studies, skin conductance of a finger was used to measure physiological response They found that subjects responded strongly to emotional images compared to neutral images, and that the emotional response occurred between a fraction of a second to several seconds BEFORE the image appeared! Recently Professor Bierman (University of Amsterdam) repeated these experiments with subjects in an fMRI brain imager and found emotional responses in brain activity up to 4 seconds before the stimuli. Moreover he looked at raw data from other laboratories and found similar emotional responses before stimuli appeared.
    http://www.quantumconsciousnes.....Flies.html

    Of course as a Theist, especially as a Christian Theist, I would expect morality to be deeply embedded within reality itself, as the preceding study indicates, for I hold God, who is the source of objective morality, upholds this universe in every instance in the infinite power of His being. And moreover I hold that Christ fulfilled the infinite moral obligation for man’s sin demanded by the perfection of the infinite justice of God’s morality, so that sinful man may be acquitted of the penalty of death, which is the just penalty wrought upon separation from God by sin, and be able to dwell with God in eternity.

    Scientists say Turin Shroud is supernatural – December 2011
    Excerpt: After years of work trying to replicate the colouring on the shroud, a similar image has been created by the scientists.
    However, they only managed the effect by scorching equivalent linen material with high-intensity ultra violet lasers, undermining the arguments of other research, they say, which claims the Turin Shroud is a medieval hoax.
    Such technology, say researchers from the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (Enea), was far beyond the capability of medieval forgers, whom most experts have credited with making the famous relic.
    “The results show that a short and intense burst of UV directional radiation can colour a linen cloth so as to reproduce many of the peculiar characteristics of the body image on the Shroud of Turin,” they said.
    And in case there was any doubt about the preternatural degree of energy needed to make such distinct marks, the Enea report spells it out: “This degree of power cannot be reproduced by any normal UV source built to date.”
    http://www.independent.co.uk/n.....79512.html

    Verse and Music:

    Romans 3:23
    for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

    In Christ Alone Live – HD
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mPrqltkJyw

    supplemental note;

    I was very surprised to learn that the negative mental states of stress, anxiety, and even ‘loathing’, have been shown to have a detrimental effect upon ones health:

    Anxiety May Shorten Your Cell Life – July 12, 2012
    Excerpt: These studies had the advantage of large data sets involving thousands of participants.
    If the correlations remain robust in similar studies, it would indicate that mental states and lifestyle choices can produce epigenetic effects on our genes.
    http://crev.info/2012/07/anxie.....cell-life/

    How those marital rows can be bad for your health by JENNY HOPE – December 2005
    Excerpt: Married couples who constantly argue risk damaging their health, according to a study.
    It found that marital rows can prolong the time it takes the body to heal itself after an injury.
    One argument alone can slow this process by a day.
    And the study claims that when married couples feel consistently hostile towards one another, the delay in the healing process can be doubled.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/hea.....ealth.html

    Atheism and health
    A meta-analysis of all studies, both published and unpublished, relating to religious involvement and longevity was carried out in 2000. Forty-two studies were included, involving some 126,000 subjects. Active religious involvement increased the chance of living longer by some 29%, and participation in public religious practices, such as church attendance, increased the chance of living longer by 43%.[4][5]
    http://www.conservapedia.com/Atheism_and_health

  10. 10
    bornagain77 says:

    sorry for my poor sentence structure in the preceding post. Hopefully it is not too difficult to decipher.

  11. 11
    5for says:

    Thanks Dick, although that is pretty vague. Presumably if it is “written on the heart”, then it is written on the heart for everyone, theist and atheist, and the discussion is moot.

    But you haven’t actually answered my question. How do you personally know that it is written on your heart? How do you “read” your heart?

    And when did it get written? When you were a child you would have often chosen cruelty over kindness. So presumably the “writing’ occurred sometime between being a child and being an adult?

  12. 12
    Dick says:

    5for writes: “Presumably if it is “written on the heart”, then it is written on the heart for everyone, theist and atheist, and the discussion is moot.”

    Well, no, it’s not moot. The question at issue is what is the source of the moral sentiments we’re talking about?

    If the source is impersonal (e.g. natural selection) then there can be no duty to heed it. Impersonal causes cannot impose a moral obligation. Nor can they adjudicate between acts.

    The concept of moral duty only makes sense if that duty is objectively imposed by a personal being that has, by virtue of its nature, the authority to do so.

    Put another way, on atheism our moral sentiments are merely expressions of our subjective predilections. Even if someone feels strongly that, say, scamming the elderly is “wrong,” there’s really no reason to think that one’s feelings on the matter should dictate one’s behavior, much less be a standard for the behavior of others.

    The most the atheist can say is that she personally doesn’t like scamming the elderly. She can’t say that it’s wrong to do it. Indeed, what does “wrong” even mean, given atheism?

  13. 13
    5for says:

    Thanks for your response Dick. So let’s say you are right about the source of morals. That doesn’t help you in working out what they are does it? When you have to decide whether it is right or wrong to deny gay people the right to be married (for example), how would you personally go about making that decision, and how would that process differ from the process an atheist goes through?

  14. 14
    Breckmin says:

    Using pure logic it is easy to find one sado masochist who is mentally ill and has suppressed his moral conscious, etc. to invalidate the whole norm verses abnormal debate. If there are alleged “abnormal” objections to the moral norms then every argument is easily reduced to an argumentum ad populum. You can never make a moral claim of “as long as you are not hurting anyone” or any other moral claim/basis IF you have (alleged) evil people who believe it IS ok to hurt someone for no reason at all. If a serial killer or a mentally ill sado masochist thinks that it is somehow “good” to hurt and kill someone…then the atheist has no basis for any moral standard whatsoever…because it is easily shown to be circular reasoning (an ad populum appeal).

    Even more problematic for the atheist are “norms” in general. Like vjtorley said in the short paragraph regarding how norms are more than descriptive… it would never make any real logical sense to say something is “weird” or “bizarre” behavior..because such modifiers (adjectives)loose all meaning when it comes to the reality of what just IS. There would be no “bizarre” with respect to moral behavior without an objective moral standard because there can be no objective norm…just relative norms.. and putting relative in front of norm takes away from its universal meaning. (“evil” would therefore also be a meaningless modifier because all behavior “just is”)

    Without an objective moral Law Giver in the universe there can be no objective right or wrong…just circular appeals that when using pure logic end up being ad populum appeals when “abnormals” challenge the norm. Question even more so…why this is true.

  15. 15
    5for says:

    Breckmin, precisely. That is why what is bizarre to one person is completely normal to another. When you are saying something is bizarre, all you are saying is that you personally think it is bizarre. What’s your point? That we should have one standard of bizarreness that everyone in the world holds to? That would be pretty boring.

  16. 16
    DinoV says:

    5for But you haven’t actually answered my question. How do you personally know that it is written on your heart? How do you “read” your heart? And when did it get written? When you were a child you would have often chosen cruelty over kindness. So presumably the “writing’ occurred sometime between being a child and being an adult?
    ******************************

    5for — you seem to be asking for objective data on a metaphysical concept. The dimension of morality would appear to be outside of this realm. The same line of questions could be asked of you; given your belief that atheism is true. “How do you know that morality is just a product of blind physical forces? At what stage of evolution did this illusory sense develop?”. “”I am waiting!!”” etc… We are discussing beliefs here, not knowledge.

  17. 17
    Breckmin says:

    5for @15

    “all you are saying is that you personally think it is bizarre.”

    Yet in the prior sentence you said “completely normal to another” person….then how can you contrast “bizarre” from “normal” in any hyper technical way? In order to have the existence/meaning of “normal” you need to have the opposite or contrary condition of “abnormal” exist in reality.

    However… now you are saying it is just relative to what you personally “think.” But how can the person logically “think” something is abnormal IF it is “normal” to someone else? How does the word (hyper-technically) maintain its meaning if YOU say it’s normal and someone else say it’s bizarre??? Does bizarre=normal?

    Perhaps this point is being strained and we are missing the specifics of how we are defining the word “bizarre” or what it is applying specifically to (what behaviors).

    From an overused common usage – I can see your point…but NOT from a hyper-technical viewpoint of maintaining any real meaning to the word. An opposite condition must objectively exist or relativism invalidates the meaningfulness of the word.

  18. 18
    Mark Frank says:

    vj
    At last someone has written something worth reading on this issue – thanks. Of course, I think it is wrong but it is thoughtful and original (I believe I have followed it and I am not green around the gills). Actually I think your argument fails at the first step.

    They certainly don’t come from the wants of people who have moral obligations. If they did, then first of all, our having those obligations would be contingent upon our wanting certain goods, which would seriously weaken the claim that moral norms containing these “oughts” are self-evident, as people want very different things;

    I am convinced they do come from a certain subset of the wants of people who have moral obligations. Although in some areas people want very different things, people are largely united in many other wants including a distaste for others suffering. Not totally united – there are psychopaths in the world – and the emphasis will shift with culture so that some cultures will value courage more than compassion or value death less than honour. But united enough to make moral statements into statements about the world not just statements about my wishes. Just as statements about what is interesting, or challenging, or dangerous, or funny are statements about the world that are grounded in facts about what most people feel, do or are capable of.

    and secondly, we could only know the truth of these moral norms via an indirect process of introspection, rather than knowing them immediately, as we claim to do.

    This is a very odd argument. Our knowledge about an object can be grounded in a desire without us having to introspect ourselves to check we have the desire! I know a woman is attractive. This is undoubtedly grounded in my desires. But I immediately know she is attractive – I don’t have to go through an indirect process of introspection to check I really have the desire! It is rather the other way round. I know I have the desire because of my attitude towards her.
    The rest of your OP is interesting but it all rather relies on this first step.

  19. 19

    Barb:

    Morality must have objective standards of right and wrong in order for it to flourish in civilized society.

    So what are those standards?

  20. 20
    Andre says:

    One simple standard Dr Liddle

    Love….

  21. 21
    Alan Fox says:

    If there is such a thing as objective or absolute morality, surely the source must be independent from human imagination. Show me your sources, people!

  22. 22
    bornagain77 says:

    Of related note: Human Cells Respond in Healthy, Unhealthy Ways to Different Kinds of Happiness – July 29, 2013
    Excerpt: Human bodies recognize at the molecular level that not all happiness is created equal, responding in ways that can help or hinder physical health,,,
    The sense of well-being derived from “a noble purpose” may provide cellular health benefits, whereas “simple self-gratification” may have negative effects, despite an overall perceived sense of happiness, researchers found.,,,
    “Philosophers have long distinguished two basic forms of well-being: a ‘hedonic’ [hee-DON-ic] form representing an individual’s pleasurable experiences, and a deeper ‘eudaimonic,’ [u-DY-moh-nick] form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification,” wrote Fredrickson and her colleagues.
    It’s the difference, for example, between enjoying a good meal and feeling connected to a larger community through a service project, she said. Both give us a sense of happiness, but each is experienced very differently in the body’s cells.,,,
    But if all happiness is created equal, and equally opposite to ill-being, then patterns of gene expression should be the same regardless of hedonic or eudaimonic well-being. Not so, found the researchers.
    Eudaimonic well-being was, indeed, associated with a significant decrease in the stress-related CTRA gene expression profile. In contrast, hedonic well-being was associated with a significant increase in the CTRA profile. Their genomics-based analyses, the authors reported, reveal the hidden costs of purely hedonic well-being.,,
    Fredrickson found the results initially surprising, because study participants themselves reported overall feelings of well-being. One possibility, she suggested, is that people who experience more hedonic than eudaimonic well-being consume the emotional equivalent of empty calories. “Their daily activities provide short-term happiness yet result in negative physical consequences long-term,” she said.
    “We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ’empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically,” she said. “At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.”
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....161952.htm

  23. 23
    bornagain77 says:

    Mr Fox demands,,

    “Show me your sources, people!”

    Exactly Mr. Fox, and welcome to the club! I’ve been asking for references from Darwinists for years to prove that Darwinian evolution is not merely the product of human imagination! And have been provided with ZERO examples substantiating the claim that Darwinian processes can generate functional complexity!

    note:

    Molecular Machines: – Michael J. Behe
    Excerpt: JME is a journal that was begun specifically to deal with the topic of how evolution occurs on the molecular level. It has high scientific standards, and is edited by prominent figures in the field.,,,
    In the past ten years JME has published 886 papers. Of these, 95 discussed the chemical synthesis of molecules thought to be necessary for the origin of life, 44 proposed mathematical models to improve sequence analysis, 20 concerned the evolutionary implications of current structures, and 719 were analyses of protein or polynucleotide sequences. here were zero papers discussing detailed models for intermediates in the development of complex biomolecular structures. This is not a peculiarity of JME. No papers are to be found that discuss detailed models for intermediates in the development of complex biomolecular structures in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Nature, Science, the Journal of Molecular Biology or, to my knowledge, any journal whatsoever.
    http://www.arn.org/docs/behe/mb_mm92496.htm

  24. 24
    lpadron says:

    Alan Fox,

    Surely the source must also be responsible for the objective rules by which you reason, no?

  25. 25
    Dick says:

    5for writes (13): “So let’s say you are right about the source of morals. That doesn’t help you in working out what they are does it?”

    No, it doesn’t, but that wasn’t my point. What it does do, if I’m right, is allow us to believe that non-arbitrary moral duties are possible. Believing that there is a transcendent personal ground for morality doesn’t mean, necessarily, that we’ll know what our duty is or that we’ll fulfill that duty, but at least we have reason to believe that objective moral obligations exist. On atheism they simply don’t and can’t.

    Maybe we can see this more clearly if we ask a concrete question: Why, on atheism, should we care for the poor? Or, why, given atheism, is it wrong to be a complete egoist?

    The only answer the atheist can give to the first question is that it makes him feel good, but he has to acknowledge that it wouldn’t be wrong to not care for the poor.

    The only answer to the second question is that it may not be in one’s self-interest to act only in one’s own self-interest, but this is an odd reply.

    If atheism is true there’s no reason why anyone should think themselves morally obligated to do anything which doesn’t advance their own interests.

    That’s why so many atheistic thinkers wind up as moral nihilists of one sort or another.

  26. 26
    Chesterton says:

    EL said:

    “You can’t seem to decide on whether the problem with atheism is that we have no objective way of deciding which moral principles are good and which bad, or whether the problem is that we have no reason have any moral principles at all.
    If the first, I suggest that the same is true of theism.”

    True, theism it is not enough, you need religion and more specifically a True religion.

    EL said:
    “If the second, I suggest that there are many good reasons for having certain moral principles, including the Golden Rule, because certain moral principles, including the Golden Rule, tend to promote a society in which we all benefit. I also think that the idea that there are things we ought to do (i.e. the concept of morality) is a natural consequence of being able to foresee the the distal consequences of our actions, for both ourselves and others.”

    Then your morality is defined but what is good for you or your society. You have first to demostrate which is “good” for everyone and good for the society and second prove that what you call the Golden Rule is able to reach that good. Looking for evidence for the efficacy of the second rule take in count that no social animals applies that rule and in no human society is enforced a “Golden Rule”. In many human societies a “Golden Rule” is followed only because a proportion of them beleive that “Golden Rule” is the Word of God an nobody is going to escape his judgement.

    EL said:

    “At it’s simplest, I’d say that if causes harm it is bad.”

    Didn´t you ever reprimended your son?

  27. 27
    bornagain77 says:

    here are my cleaned up notes as to providing empirical evidence that morality is a tangible part of reality (and of us):

    Since I hold that God continuously sustains the universe in the infinite power of His being, and since I also hold that God created our ‘inmost being’, then I hold that morality is a real, objective, tangible, part of reality that is deeply embedded within us since I hold that morality itself arises from the perfect nature of God’s being. The following study gives support to this Theistic presupposition:

    Moral evaluations of harm are instant and emotional, brain study shows – November 29, 2012
    Excerpt: People are able to detect, within a split second, if a hurtful action they are witnessing is intentional or accidental, new research on the brain at the University of Chicago shows.
    http://medicalxpress.com/news/.....brain.html

    Of course atheists will claim that this instantaneous moral compass which humans have, contra the ‘survival of the fittest’ mantra, ‘just so happened’ to evolve to be an instant and emotional reaction (despite the fact that Darwinists cannot even explain how a single neuron of the brain arose). But the following study, contrary to what atheists would prefer to believe beforehand, goes even deeper and shows that hurtful, violent, actions are embedded on a ‘non-local’ basis, i.e. embedded on a ‘spiritual’ level.

    Quantum Consciousness – Time Flies Backwards? – Stuart Hameroff MD
    Excerpt: Dean Radin and Dick Bierman have performed a number of experiments of emotional response in human subjects. The subjects view a computer screen on which appear (at randomly varying intervals) a series of images, some of which are emotionally neutral, and some of which are highly emotional (violent, sexual….). In Radin and Bierman’s early studies, skin conductance of a finger was used to measure physiological response They found that subjects responded strongly to emotional images compared to neutral images, and that the emotional response occurred between a fraction of a second to several seconds BEFORE the image appeared! Recently Professor Bierman (University of Amsterdam) repeated these experiments with subjects in an fMRI brain imager and found emotional responses in brain activity up to 4 seconds before the stimuli. Moreover he looked at raw data from other laboratories and found similar emotional responses before stimuli appeared.
    http://www.quantumconsciousnes.....Flies.html

    There is simply no coherent materialistic/atheistic answer as to why any morally toubling situations might be detected prior to our becoming fully conscious of them. Whereas as a Theist, especially as a Christian Theist, I would expect morality to be deeply embedded within reality itself as well as within us, since I hold that God sustains the universe, and I also hold that we are made in the image of God.

    This following study goes even further and shows that objective morality is even built into the way our bodies respond to different kinds of ‘moral’ happiness:

    Human Cells Respond in Healthy, Unhealthy Ways to Different Kinds of Happiness – July 29, 2013
    Excerpt: Human bodies recognize at the molecular level that not all happiness is created equal, responding in ways that can help or hinder physical health,,,
    The sense of well-being derived from “a noble purpose” may provide cellular health benefits, whereas “simple self-gratification” may have negative effects, despite an overall perceived sense of happiness, researchers found.,,,
    “Philosophers have long distinguished two basic forms of well-being: a ‘hedonic’ [hee-DON-ic] form representing an individual’s pleasurable experiences, and a deeper ‘eudaimonic,’ [u-DY-moh-nick] form that results from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose beyond simple self-gratification,” wrote Fredrickson and her colleagues.
    It’s the difference, for example, between enjoying a good meal and feeling connected to a larger community through a service project, she said. Both give us a sense of happiness, but each is experienced very differently in the body’s cells.,,,
    But if all happiness is created equal, and equally opposite to ill-being, then patterns of gene expression should be the same regardless of hedonic or eudaimonic well-being. Not so, found the researchers.
    Eudaimonic well-being was, indeed, associated with a significant decrease in the stress-related CTRA gene expression profile. In contrast, hedonic well-being was associated with a significant increase in the CTRA profile. Their genomics-based analyses, the authors reported, reveal the hidden costs of purely hedonic well-being.,,
    Fredrickson found the results initially surprising, because study participants themselves reported overall feelings of well-being. One possibility, she suggested, is that people who experience more hedonic than eudaimonic well-being consume the emotional equivalent of empty calories. “Their daily activities provide short-term happiness yet result in negative physical consequences long-term,” she said.
    “We can make ourselves happy through simple pleasures, but those ’empty calories’ don’t help us broaden our awareness or build our capacity in ways that benefit us physically,” she said. “At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.”
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....161952.htm

    To believe that Darwinian evolution could produce such a ‘morally nuanced’ genetic mechanism, a mechanism which discerns between morally noble causes and morally self gratifying causes, moral causes which are below our immediate feelings of satisfaction, is not a parsimonious belief to believe in to put it mildly. Especially given the fact that Darwinian evolution has yet to demonstrate the origination of a single gene and/or protein in the first place!

    Supporting Notes:

    That a transcendent, beyond space and time, cause in needed to explain the continued existence of the universe is noted here:

    ‘Quantum Magic’ Without Any ‘Spooky Action at a Distance’ – June 2011
    Excerpt: A team of researchers led by Anton Zeilinger at the University of Vienna and the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information of the Austrian Academy of Sciences used a system which does not allow for entanglement, and still found results which cannot be interpreted classically.
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....111942.htm

    and here:

    Quantum Entanglement – The Failure Of Local Realism – Materialism – Alain Aspect – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/w/4744145

    Closing the last Bell-test loophole for photons – (Zeilinger) Jun 11, 2013
    http://phys.org/news/2013-06-b.....otons.html

    That a transcendent, beyond space and time, component is present within humans is noted here:

    Quantum Information/Entanglement In DNA – Elisabeth Rieper – short video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/5936605/

    Verses and Music

    Hebrews 1:3
    ,,and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.,,,

    Psalm 139:13
    For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

    Black Eyed Peas – Where Is The Love?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpYeekQkAdc

    Related note:

    Atheism and health
    A meta-analysis of all studies, both published and unpublished, relating to religious involvement and longevity was carried out in 2000. Forty-two studies were included, involving some 126,000 subjects. Active religious involvement increased the chance of living longer by some 29%, and participation in public religious practices, such as church attendance, increased the chance of living longer by 43%.[4][5]
    http://www.conservapedia.com/Atheism_and_health

  28. 28
    bb says:

    Great post vjtorely. This idea of doing something to an organism that frustrates its flourishing, that violates the apparent intention, can be found in many moral pronouncements in the Bible. God has an intended purpose for each organism on this planet and acts that work to violate/obstruct that purpose are declared wrong.

    Romans 1

    26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

    Man is invited to fellowship with God, to inquire, and to explore his creation to discover His purpose for everything. Science without Him, while providing some benefit, is contrary to His purpose when God isn’t credited. I predict that it will eventually die as it has many times before.

    Proverbs 9:10

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

  29. 29
    Barb says:

    5for:

    Barb, where do you derive your morality from? Specifically.

    Specifically, my love of God and my fear of displeasing him. I believe he has my best interests at heart, which is why following his moral guidelines isn’t difficult.

    Dr. Liddle @ 18:

    So what are those standards?

    Let’s start by defining what we’re talking about. “Ethics” is a general term referring to both morality and ethical theory. “Morality” refers to social conventions about right and wrong human conduct that are so widely shared that they form a communal consensus. “The common morality” may be defined as socially approved norms of human conduct, using the language of human rights.

    We could start with the principles found in the Georgetown mantra: respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice.

    The first, respect for autonomy, would include respecting the decision-making capacities of autonomous persons. Autonomy presupposes two conditions: liberty (independent from controlling forces, i.e, not a minor) and agency (capacity for intentional action).

    The second, beneficence, would include providing benefits for some and balancing benefits against risks and costs. Rules and laws created under this principle would protect and defend the rights of others, prevent harm from occurring to others, remove conditions that cause harm to others, and helping persons with disabilities.

    The third, nonmaleficence, includes avoiding purposely causing harm to another person. “Do not kill”, for example. The obligation behind this principle is that one ought not to inflict harm on another person.

    The fourth, justice, includes distributing benefits, risks, and costs fairly. You may have heard of distributive justice in which there is distribution of rights and responsibilities in society.

  30. 30
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Elizabeth Liddle, Alan Fox, 5for and Barb,

    Interesting comments. I hadn’t heard of the Georgetown mantra before, so I did a bit of research. The four principles of the “Georgetown mantra” (respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice) assumed a major role early in the development of contemporary bioethics, with the 1978 publication of The Belmont Report, which discussed all but nonmaleficence, and the 1979 publication of Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress’s first edition of Principles of Biomedical Ethics.

    At first glance, the four principles sound reasonable enough. After all, who wouldn’t be in favor of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice?

    Then I did a bit more research, and came up with this penetrating critique of the Georgetown mantra by Dr. Dianne Irving, in a paper entitled, What is bioethics? Dr. Irving critiques the principles with particular reference to the field known as bioethics. The points she raises in section VII, parts B, C and D are well worth reading. Dr. Irving’s main concerns are: first, that the Georgetown mantra is built on a shaky metaphysical foundation, regarding the nature and coming-into-existence of the human person; second, that the principles contained in the Georgetown mantra contain a utilitarian bent, even when they appear at first glance to be absolute; and finally, that the principles are an ethical mishmash, containing unresolved internal tensions. A few highlights (emphases mine):

    The Belmont principles were supposedly ultimately derived from the normative ethical systems of various moral philosophers — e.g., Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. In effect, they quite selectively took bits and pieces from different and contradictory ethical theories and rolled them up into one ball. Furthermore, each of these principles were referred to as prima facie — i.e., no one principle could over-rule any of the others…

    However eventually, and inevitably, theoretical cracks began to form in the very foundation of this new “bioethics” theory. For example, because bioethics was derived from bits and pieces of fundamentally different and even often contradictory theoretical philosophical systems, the result was theoretical chaos, rendering it academically indefensible.

    …For example, while the Commissioners of The Belmont Report gave a nod to the traditional Hippocratic understanding of “beneficence” in one definition as “doing good for the patient” (or at least, doing no “harm”), their “second” definition of “beneficence” is essentially utilitarian — in terms of the good for society at large (or roughly, “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”). Obviously these two different and opposite definitions of “beneficence” could easily contradict each other. How can the “bene” refer to the good of an individual patient in the standard medical or the research settings, and at the same time in the same case refer to the good of society — calculated in the crude terms of utilitarian “risks and benefits”? …

    Even The Belmont Report itself admits this inherent contradiction in its own definition of “beneficence”: “Here, again, as with all hard cases, the different claims covered by the principle of beneficence may come into conflict and force difficult choices.” Choices based on what, one might ask? The normative ethical theory of utilitarianism? …

    Utilitarianism has always had serious problems with defining in practice what “good” is, but it is generally very roughly reduced to some sort of lack of physical or mental pain or pleasure — or inversely, as “sentience.” One thing is clear, however. All utilitarian formulas, by definition, leave minorities and the vulnerable out in the cold. There are no moral absolutes here – only “rules” or mathematical risk/benefit ratios, which are by definition relative to “the greater good.”…

    The bioethics principle of “justice” in The Belmont Report is also ultimately defined along utilitarian lines, in terms of “fairness” — i.e., fairness in the distribution of the benefits and burdens of research. This is not your classic definition of “justice,” e.g., in the Aristotelean sense of communitive or distributive justice, but rather in terms strongly influenced by Harvard Graduate School philosophy professor John Rawls, as articulated in his then-new book, A Theory of Justice…

    Even the bioethics principle of “respect for persons” eventually ends up serving “the greatest good.” Now, how on earth could that have happened, one might perceptively ask? Well, as noted above, it is The Belmont Report that explains that “respect for persons” includes the duty to participate in non-therapeutic research for the greater good of society. And the question arises: How could the principle that was supposed to ground an inviolable respect for each individual human being be defined in terms of a utilitarian respect for “society”? …

    Eventually, practical cracks too began to form in the foundations of this brave new bioethics, cracks which seemed to widen deeper the more the “theory” was applied — as admitted in publications by even many of the Founders themselves – the best kept secret in bioethics! For example, The Hastings Center’s Daniel Callahan conceded in the 25th anniversary issue of The Hastings Center Report celebrating the “birth of bioethics,” that the principles of bioethics simply had not worked. But not to worry, he said, we might try communitarianism now: “The range of questions that a communitarian bioethics would pose could keep the field of bioethics well and richly occupied for at least another 25 years”! …

    Although bioethics conveniently wants desperately to claim that it does not embody any anthropology — or definition of a “person” — it obviously does. As noted (and referenced above and below), many (if not most) of those who heavily influenced the development of bioethics brought to their several analyses very specific positions on “personhood” — especially the “personhood” of the early human embryo and the human fetus.

    For example, most of them believed in some sort of “delayed personhood,” i.e., “personhood” (or, “moral status”) did not begin until some magical biological marker event after fertilization. And “personhood” was invariably defined philosophically in very rationalistic and/or empiricist terms — e.g., “rational attributes” such as autonomy, knowing, willing, self-consciousness, relating to the world around one, etc.; or, “sentience” such as the feeling of pain or pleasure. Obviously early human embryos and fetuses did not possess such “personhood” characteristics (nor do a lot of adult human beings, I might add). Practically speaking, the effect of this within bioethics was to provide “theoretical” support for those who could then take the position that the use of early human embryos and fetuses “for the common good” or “for the advancement of science” was therefore “ethical.”

    It is the issue of “personhood” that this writer considers pivotal to any legitimate academic debate on “ethics” or “bioethics.”…

    I also found an article entitled Uncommon Morality: Can bioethics brig us all together? by Ronald Bailey in Reason magazine (April 10, 2002). A few excerpts:

    To assess the state of bioethics, the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University assembled an all-star cast of seminal thinkers in the field this past weekend. Most of those gathered think the discipline is doing just fine…

    …The dominant view in bioethics is that developed by James Childress from the University of Virginia and Thomas Beauchamp from Georgetown University in their seminal book Principles of Biomedical Ethics. They devised the four principles that have become known as the “Georgetown mantra”: respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice…. They acknowledge that they cannot ground these principles on a particular theory of ethics, but appeal instead to “common morality.” What is this common morality? …

    Just consider briefly the principle of justice. Justice generally means that persons should get what they deserve. But there can be no more contentious notion than what it is that people deserve. Do murderers deserve to die? How much of the goods of society does anyone deserve, and for what reasons? …

    Bioethicist David DeGrazia from George Washington University highlighted the problem by listing a series of propositions with moral content that the majority of Americans have regularly supported. DeGrazia’s propositions included: homosexuality is wrong, women must change their last names when they marry, property rights are sacred, wealthy people have a right to send their kids to private schools, eating meat is morally unproblematic, and animals exist for human use. “In fact, I believe all those propositions are immoral,” declared DeGrazia. And if assent stemming from a common morality cannot be achieved on these questions in America, what hope is there to achieve a consensus on morality across even more diverse cultures?

    If there is one conclusion that leaps out from the foregoing discussion, it’s that you can’t have morality without metaphysics. Without a solid underlying theory of who and what we are, ethical reasoning will go astray.

    However, I don’t believe in succumbing to despair over the lack of agreement among moralists. I happen to believe that the natural law tradition in ethics is a fruitful one, and while theorists within this tradition may disagree among themselves, their disagreements seem to be much more manageable, as they occur relative to a set of shared background metaphysical principles. There’s a good summary of this view in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in an article by Mark Murphy entitled, The Natural Law Tradition in Ethics. A few highlights:

    …[T]he natural law view commits one to holding that certain claims about the good are in fact knowable, indeed, knowable by all…

    To summarize: the paradigmatic natural law view holds that (1) the natural law is given by God; (2) it is naturally authoritative over all human beings; and (3) it is naturally knowable by all human beings. Further, it holds that (4) the good is prior to the right, that (5) right action is action that responds nondefectively to the good, that (6) there are a variety of ways in which action can be defective with respect to the good, and that (7) some of these ways can be captured and formulated as general rules…

    It is essential to the natural law position that there be some things that are universally and naturally good. But how is universal, natural goodness possible? Given the variability of human tastes and desires, how could there be such universal goods?

    Natural law theorists have at least three answers available to them. The first answer is Hobbesian, and proceeds on the basis of a subjectivist theory of the good. On subjectivist theories of the good, what makes it true that something is good is that it is desired, or liked, or in some way is the object of one’s pro-attitudes, or would be the object of one’s pro-attitudes in some suitable conditions… While there are contemporary defenders of Hobbesian moral theories (see Gauthier 1986), there is no one who is on record defending Hobbes’s interesting combination of a thoroughgoing subjectivism about the good along with an account of a dominant substantive good around which the moral rules are formulated. The basic reason for this just seems to be that Hobbes’s arguments that the human desire for self-preservation is such an entirely dominant desire are implausible, and there do not seem to be any better arguments available…

    The second answer is Aristotelian. The idea here is to reject a subjectivism about the good, holding that what makes it true that something is good is not that it stands in some relation to desire but rather that it is somehow perfective or completing of a being, where what is perfective or completing of a being depends on that being’s nature. So what is good for an oak is what is completing or perfective of the oak, and this depends on the kind of thing that an oak is by nature… [M]ost contemporary natural law theory is Aristotelian in its orientation, holding that there is still good reason to hold to an understanding of flourishing in nature and that none of the advances of modern science has called this part of the Aristotelian view into question…

    The third answer is Platonic. Like the Aristotelian view, it rejects a subjectivism about the good. But it does not hold that the good is to be understood in terms of human nature. The role of human nature is not to define or set the good, but merely to define what the possibilities of human achievement are. So one might think that some things — knowledge, beauty, etc. — are just good in themselves, apart from any reference to human desire or perfection, but hold that the pursuit of these are only part of the natural law insofar as they fall within the ambit of human practical possibility… The Platonic version of the view has struck many as both too metaphysically ornate to be defensible, on one hand, and as not fitting very well with a conception of ethics grounded in nature, on the other…

    So it looks as if the most promising answer is the Aristotelian one. (Mark Frank’s approach sounds more Hobbesian. While I agree that it is somewhat harsh to label the Hobbesian approach as “subjectivist”, as Murphy does, I would also hold that it is needs, rather than wants, that offer the most reliable guide to what is good for a creature, and that we also need to examine what makes that creature thrive.)

    Murphy’s article goes on to discuss contemporary disagreements among natural law theorists regarding the basic goods that comprise the telos of human beings and other living organisms: in particular, how we come to know these fundamental goods, the catalog of basic goods, and (most importantly of all) how we can argue from the good to the right. There are real and substantial disagreements between natural law theorists on these issues, and I would invite readers to peruse Murphy’s article on the subject. Nevertheless, I would regard these differences as tractable over the course of time, in contrast to the disagreements between bioethicists who adhere to the Georgetown mantra. The reason is that the thinkers who adhere to the natural law tradition are at least on the same metaphysical page, so to speak. However, there is no hope of agreement between moralists who disagree as to the fundamental nature of human beings.

    I’ll stop there for now.

  31. 31
    DinoV says:

    Fox –

    Show me your source that objectively proves that the metaphysical notion of morality is indeed, relative.

    Ill wait.

  32. 32
    Mark Frank says:

    vj #29

    You have nicely outlined various ethical “systems” and, as you know, there are many more. But this raises the bigger question – on what basis should we choose one system rather than another?

    It cannot be an ethical justification because you would need another ethical system to make the choice. So how do you make the choice? You, and Irving, appear to criticise the Georgetown mantra on the grounds of inconsistency and conflicting advice in practice. While I can see that this is a valid pragmatic criticism for bioethics – it is important to give medical practioners and the law consistent and clear guidance on what to do – it doesn’t tell us much about whether the mantra is correct or true. There are many rather consistent ethical systems – some of which we would all find quite unacceptable. I don’t think consistency is even a minimum requirement or criticism. Perhaps the truth about ethics is that it is inconsistent and unclear and that any system that produces consistent and clear principles is oversimplifying things the truth.

  33. 33
    Dick says:

    Re: VJ’s post (29):

    The most important question, it seems to me, is how does one choose one system of ethics over another? To what standard do we hold these different systems up to determine which gives the most acceptable results? And if we’re using a higher standard as a measure then why not adopt that standard?

    The problem with many naturalistic ethical systems is that they seem to assume that there’s an objective standard of good while denying any possible grounds for it.

    As a consequence, the naturalist has no convincing answer to the question, “Why should I not just be an egoist and/or a subjectivist?”

  34. 34
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Mark Frank,

    Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your point that an ethical system can be too consistent (as Emerson famously remarked, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”), and that sometimes it is better to have a theory that contains unresolved internal tensions. However, tensions are one thing; contradictions, quite another. And even if you were going to allow some contradictions within an ethical theory, you would at least try to keep them out of your basic assumptions, for that would be fatal. That’s why I think the Georgetown mantra won’t work.

    Inconsistency isn’t the worst fault that an ethical system can have, however. Far worse than inconsistency is inhumanity. That’s why I detest the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism, which tells me that every hope, dream, desire, goal and need of mine must be subordinated to the greatest good of the greatest number. Utilitarianism is capable of justifying literally any act of inhumanity to man, so long as it advances or secures this “higher good”. (Rule utilitarianism endeavors to avoid justifying the most vicious acts of inhumanity by saying that as a rule, performing these acts would not be conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number, but that kind of answer still gives me no rights against the majority; it fails to respect me as a sacrosanct human person.)

    At a minimum, then, any ethical system worth its salt must be founded on a vision of what human beings are that recognizes (a) their intrinsic worth as individuals, (b) their freedom as rational moral agents with the power to choose between alternatives, and (c) their built-in ends, which determine their needs and the circumstances under which they flourish. In other words, it must provide us with a consistent account of human nature, which recognizes our full human potential and does not try to put us in a box, as materialism does.

    Beyond those first principles, vigorous disagreements are bound to arise. I don’t have any good answers to that problem, and often my advice to warring factions would be: do whatever works. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I used to take capitalism very seriously: I was a big fan of anarcho-libertarianism back then. Now I’m a lot less dogmatic about the issue of property rights and taxation, and I realize that what might work in one kind of society might not work in another. And although I retain a strong anarchistic streak from those days, I respect the fact that many people might want to sacrifice some of their freedoms to live in a society that is secure and (relatively) free from dire poverty. It’s silly to get worked up about issues of lesser importance, when much larger ones loom, such as the destruction of innocent human life.

    As regards ethical systems, I’m aware of two schools of thought that do justice to human nature: deontological ethics and virtue ethics. I wouldn’t presume to criticize either on a systematic basis. From a legal standpoint, virtue ethics is unacceptably fuzzy, but at the same time, nobody wants laws that are absolutely ironclad and that create injustice for that very reason (remember “three strikes and you’re out”?) I would certainly hope that some sort of marriage of the two ethical systems is possible, in the long run. But that’s just a dream; I don’t know how it will pan out.

  35. 35
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Dick,

    You’ve raised some excellent good questions in your last post. For my part, I would agree with you that an ethical system which takes a philosophy of metaphysical naturalism as its starting point will never be able to derive the kind of ethical norms that a decent system of ethics requires. If I am nothing but a sophisticated biological machine, the question, “Why should I be good?” will loom large, and at the same time, the very phrase “should do” will shrink in meaning to “would be well-advised to do, if you want to remain in a stable and well-functioning condition”.

    Natural law ethics, on the other hand, respects human freedom – indeed, it assumes it from the outset. It also has an objective standard of good: the built-in ends that have been implanted within the nature of every kind of living creature, by its Creator. It would answer the question, “Why should I be good?” by saying, “Because if you are, then you will lead a life that is worthy of being called human in every sense of the word, whereas if you violate the norms that define goodness, you will shrink to something less than what you were meant to be. And if there are any supernatural ends for which you were created – a topic about which ethics is capable of saying very little – then you run the risk of closing off the possibility of your attaining those ends, as well.” At least, that’s how I see it.

  36. 36
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Kantian Naturalist,

    Thank you for sending me a copy of Owen Flanagan’s “Ethics Naturalized: Ethics as Human Ecology”. It’s quite a meaty essay, and I think it warrants a post in its own right. I’ll try to respond to it within the next few weeks, but I can’t promise anything, as I currently have a lot on my plate.

  37. 37
    Barb says:

    vjtorley @ 29: Thanks for the additional research. I had a brief course in bioethics as part of a yearlong curriculum on medical business management, and that’s where I learned about the Georgetown mantra.

    For me, the end result of studying and analyzing various forms of philosophical reasoning always leads me back here: “Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry YOU off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ…” (Colossians 1:8)

  38. 38
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    In re: 34 — I certainly understand — but I really do want to know what you think of it! I think that seeing your criticisms of Flanagan will really help cement (in my mind, anyway) the subtle fault-lines between contemporary Thomism and contemporary ‘naturalized Aristotelianism’.

  39. 39
    Kantian Naturalist says:

    As regards ethical systems, I’m aware of two schools of thought that do justice to human nature: deontological ethics and virtue ethics. I wouldn’t presume to criticize either on a systematic basis. From a legal standpoint, virtue ethics is unacceptably fuzzy, but at the same time, nobody wants laws that are absolutely ironclad and that create injustice for that very reason (remember “three strikes and you’re out”?) I would certainly hope that some sort of marriage of the two ethical systems is possible, in the long run. But that’s just a dream; I don’t know how it will pan out.

    There’s been a fair amount of work already in reconciling deontology and virtue-ethics — see, for example, Seyla Benhabib’s work on “the general and concrete other” — or Barbara Herman’s interpretation of Kant as a virtue ethicist.

    In my way of thinking about it, the beginning of reconciliation is to think of justice as the universalizable virtue — as that virtue which is not intrinsically tied up with communal traditions. From that starting point, Rawls (and Habermas) and MacIntyre (and Gadamer) are not so really so far apart.

    I’m sure there’s been lots of work on this issue, but I don’t work in ethics or social-political philosophy anymore — I had a strong interest in it back in grad school, but lately I’ve drifted more towards epistemology and philosophy of mind, though in a pragmatist and phenomenological idiom where the divides between areas of inquiry are not so strong as they are in mainstream ‘analytic’ philosophy.

  40. 40
    Mark Frank says:

    vj #32

    An interesting discussion. I want to ask a meta meta question (if that makes sense). What is the role of a system of ethics? I can think of three answers and each suggests different criteria for choosing between systems:

    A) A practical set of rules or guidelines or advice for ethical living. I have no problem with these. They will be specific to a context (e.g. a particular culture such as 400 BC Athens or Western liberal democracy)and if they are to be effective they need to be consistent, clear, and result in decisions that are broadly accepted by the community. Bioethics is an example in a very specific culture.

    B} An attempt to describe the rules by which we make ethical decisions. This is essentially social sciences and such a system should be evaluated empirically.

    C) An attempt to discover an ultimate justification for all ethical decisions. This is the one I don’t believe can be done because you cannot have criteria for choosing the best one without invoking a more ultimate system to justify those criteria. So the choice becomes subjective and proposed systems turn out to be a mixture of A and B.

    You write:

    At a minimum, then, any ethical system worth its salt must be founded on a vision of what human beings are that recognizes (a) their intrinsic worth as individuals, (b) their freedom as rational moral agents with the power to choose between alternatives, and (c) their built-in ends, which determine their needs and the circumstances under which they flourish. In other words, it must provide us with a consistent account of human nature, which recognizes our full human potential and does not try to put us in a box, as materialism does.

    But how are you going to justify these three criteria? I don’t even believe in built-in ends so they are not going to work for me.

  41. 41
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Barb,

    Thanks for your response. I’m glad my comments were of assistance to you. Cheers.

  42. 42

    Barb @28

    Very nice post! I agree with all that.

    My case is simply that none of that is derived from theism. It seems a thoroughly sensible secular approach to defining the rules that promote a society worth having.

    If it also helps define what must be the will of a good God, fine. It’s trying to do it the other way round that worries me.

    Anyway, yet again, we agree on much 🙂

    This is good. Thanks.

  43. 43
    Brent says:

    I really don’t know. This seems so simple and I just don’t get how people can get so involved in this.

    For morality to be morality it has to be binding, correct?

    If it must be binding, what candidates are available to make it actually binding?

    If morality is derived from man via evolution, then man is the source and, ultimately then, the governor of morality, and not the other way round.

    If nature is said to have evolved morality somehow (teleology anyone?), it is not binding either, man being just a part of nature, co-author of morality then, and again, morality’s governor.

    It seems that those who think there can be any real morality without some transcendent source with the ability to “do the binding” would also insist that a man is really “jailed” who holds the keys to his own cell.

  44. 44
    Chris Doyle says:

    Brent, you’re absolutely spot on. It is very simple and such a one-sided debate certainly doesn’t merit the amount of discussion that has been generated.

    We just go round and round in circles because atheists keep recycling the same old rebutted arguments and refuse to admit the plainly obvious: in a Godless universe there is no such thing as good and evil, there is no reason to lead a truly moral life and, to top it all off, there is no free-will… and morality without freewill is utterly devoid of meaning (mind you, everything is devoid of meaning in a Godless universe).

    Don’t worry, I suspect these particular discussions are wrapping up now. Personally, I hope we move on Meyer’s Darwin’s Dilemma: what a cracking book that is. Are any neo-Darwinists brave enough to take it on? I won’t hold my breath, but I will keep my fingers crossed!

  45. 45
    Mark Frank says:

    #41 Brent

    Morality does not have to be binding to be morality.
    Man is the source of morality.
    Morality is not a jail so no keys required.

    Otherwise I’m with you.

  46. 46
    jerry says:

    I just came from a meeting that discussed grant proposals supported by the US government. In order to avoid the implication that the proposal had some religious objectives the word “moral” had to be removed from the proposal. When the organization re-submitted the proposal with the word “ethical” as a softening of the term moral, it too was rejected for being religious based.

    I don’t know what the general public of atheists believe but the US government believes that the words, moral and ethical are religious based phenomena and have no meaning in a non-religious context.

  47. 47
    Brent says:

    Mark, at least you are seeming more confident in understanding what I’m saying, so there’s that . . . 🙂

    You and I, it is safe to say, would have to sit down for a month or so and hash out a common dictionary before we could get anywhere in a discussion. The problem is obvious: I hold to the meanings that words have, and you make up meanings as you go.

  48. 48
    Mark Frank says:

    #45 Brent

    Actually I wasn’t at all confident in understanding what you were saying – but I thought I would take a stab at guessing what you meant rather than go through the whole definition thing.

    If we agreed what words like “binding” and “morality” mean it might turn out that we didn’t disagree about anything (except what words mean).

  49. 49
    Alan Fox says:

    Vincent:

    If there is one conclusion that leaps out from the foregoing discussion, it’s that you can’t have morality without metaphysics. Without a solid underlying theory of who and what we are, ethical reasoning will go astray.

    I agree with the second statement but it does not follow from the first. What is emerging in many countries in Europe, Scandinavia especially, is that you do not need some (allegedly) god-given dogma an which to build an ethical community and a fair society. It’s perfectly simple to derive rules pragmatically. We can learn valuable lessons from history and free ourselves from sinister institutions such as the Catholic church or the Taliban.

  50. 50
    Breckmin says:

    @ 47
    Actually I thought vjtorley’s statement was well put in that you can’t have any sort of objective basis for morality without metaphysics (see my first paragraph @14 re: circular appeals to conventions/consensus). If fact, how can you even know “who we are” or “what we are” without an understanding of a purposeful creation? Without some sort of metaphysical understanding of absolutes that are objective and consistent with the Will/purposes of the Creator, humankind has nothing for which to base (logically justify in an open system) moral code upon.

    Neither the Catholic church nor the Taliban have a monopoly on a cumulative case for the Decalogue… so its seems somewhat futile to connect them to what was given thousands of years before them.

  51. 51
    Breckmin says:

    the so called “greatest good” is not justifiable in an open system because “good” and “evil” themselves are not justifiable.

    Without an objective standard to appeal to (Creator/Owner of the Universe) you won’t even have a proper understanding of what good and evil really are…and how they are NOT exact opposites! Question everything.

    Especially the sand of relativism from which the Georgetown mantra was so wastefully constructed upon.(and easily exposed)

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